Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (1978)

Galadriel “Gilly” Hopkins is eleven years old, and has been bounced from foster home to foster home. When she comes to Mrs. Trotter’s house, she decides right away to dislike Trotter, as well as her new foster brother William Ernest, Mr. Randolph, the elderly blind gentleman who lives next door, and her teacher, a black woman named Miss Harris. Instead of trying to make things work, Gilly plans to take advantage of any kindness shown to her and use it to find a way to be with her mother, Courtney, who sends occasional postcards but has not been around in eight years. As Gilly’s time with Trotter wears on, however, she becomes accustomed to the collection of people who make up her new family, and she begins to regret the letter she sent begging her mother to rescue her. Unfortunately, just when Gilly truly begins to feel at home, another change comes that prompts her to grow up quickly and realize her love for the people who have cared for her.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is a book I owned throughout childhood, but never read. It was recommended to me frequently, as I was a self-proclaimed realistic fiction reader, but Gilly, who is a mouthy, nervy, dishonest, and sometimes racist foster kid, was just a little bit too real for sheltered little old me. Lately, though, I have become curious about some of these so-called great books I outright refused to read as a kid, so I decided to give this one another chance. I can’t say that it’s my favorite, nor is it something I would have liked as a child, but I can now appreciate its value and understand why it received Newbery Honor recognition.

I think the great thing about this book is that it never becomes maudlin or sugary-sweet. Gilly is suitably rough around the edges for what she has been through, and her negative attitude is both appropriate to her situation and part of her charm, even when the reader doesn’t agree with everything she believes or claims to believe. Though Gilly obviously changes and overcomes some of her issues as the book progresses, the reader is never beaten over the head with Very Important Lessons or asked to swallow a cheesy message. Instead, Gilly’s life proceeds in a realistic, organic fashion, and the reader is left to piece together what she has learned on his or her own. The ending is satisfying, but not too tightly tied together, and the reader is left feeling hints of both hope and sadness.

I have reviewed quite a few books about foster families on this blog, and along with The Pinballs and The Story of Tracy Beaker, this one is one of the best. Each character is fully-realized and displays unique flaws. The story touches on some of the flaws in the foster care system as well as the disappointments kids face, but ultimately, it is not a story about foster care, or foster parents, but about one specific child and how her experience in a particular foster home shapes her personality, her attitude, and her future.

Though I’m not sure how I feel about it, I am curious about the upcoming 2014 film based on this book, which will star Kathy Bates as Trotter. While I think that is excellent casting, I wonder whether the film will be able to maintain the book’s subtleties, or if it will instead become a saccharine Hollywood drama about how a very special foster mom helps a very special girl. (I sincerely hope this can be avoided, as I think we are in desperate need of more well-made film adaptations of children’s books.)

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