Home > Katherine Paterson > #17. The Great Gilly Hopkins

#17. The Great Gilly Hopkins

Gilly Hopkins is a character with spunk. You know this within the first few lines of the book. She’s daring, bold, and unrepentant – the kind of girl most people would view with envy, admiration or fear. She’s also a child who has been in the foster care system for eight years. She has learned the hard way not to grow attached to people. Worse, she has perfected the art of acting out – to keep people away.

When Gilly first arrives at Maime Trotter’s house in Maryland, she gets up to all of her old tricks (these are very fun to read), hoping to show the people she meets that she’s the one with all the power and they can’t affect her. She also determines that she will find her way to her real mother in California by any means possible. There are some very entertaining consequences. By the end of the book, however, Gilly has learned her lessons and opened her heart up to the people she first referred to as “weird,” “lardy,” and “retarded.”

Only one aspect of the book affected me really negatively – the fact that Gilly made several blatantly racial remarks and never took them back. When she is asked to lead an old colored blind man, for example, she shrinks back and responds, “I never touched one of those people in my life.” Half of the kids in her new class are black and Gilly refers to them as “low-class idiots.” She writes poetry filled with racial slurs and slips the offensive card into her black teacher’s textbook. As I encountered each of these racial incidents, I tried to justify their presence by telling myself that the book was set in the late seventies, so the author was merely “holding a mirror up to society.” Perhaps Gilly was to learn an obvious lesson at the end – that the color of a person’s skin did not determine who they were or something along those lines. But this never happens. It is obvious that Gilly grows to love the people she had discriminated against at first but there are no words that effectively take back her offensive remarks. In any other book, this lack of explicit detail could be viewed as a good thing – “show, don’t tell” – but in a children’s book, it is a shortcoming. Subtleties are often lost on children, and so I found myself asking: are these the kind of sentiments that I would like my child exposed to? My answer was definitely no. Not unless it was in a classroom setting with a teacher who could facilitate a candid conversation about race. And then I felt some genuine disappointment. The book is very well-written, funny, with wonderful pacing and a realistic ending. I would even consider it re-readable – except for this one fatal flaw. Disappointment tastes bitter – it has changed my original 4.5 star rating into a 3 star one.

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Categories: Katherine Paterson
  1. Walda
    December 20, 2012 at 6:45 am

    It is not this or that, neither the first or last read. But everything here reminds me the world i have detached from, my one way ticket to intrigue. You are doing an amazing job on this blog. Thank you.

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