Though probably the most honored children’s writer of her generation, Katherine Paterson hasn’t seen many of her books translated to film. This weekend will be only the second time, which makes today a good time to talk about it:
At the close of the Vietnam war, John and Katherine Paterson of Barre, Vermont agreed to serve as foster parents for two Cambodian brothers who had arrived in the US as refugees. The experience turned out to be painful and humbling, especially when Mrs. Paterson recognized that the attitude she developed toward these troubled, difficult boys was anything but kind. “I was treating two human beings as though they were disposable, which is why crimes are committed and wars are fought—someone thinks someone else is disposable.” Considering what that might feel like from a child’s point of view led her to start on a manuscript that became The Great Gilly Hopkins, whose troublesome, demanding, and vulnerable title character has goaded readers ever since.
All Galadriel (Gilly) knows of her mother is a snapshot of a dreamy-eyed flower child and an occasional postcard signed “All my love, Courtney.” It’s enough to feed a steady fantasy of All-my-love Courtney sweeping into Gilly’s life someday to rescue her from a series of foster homes. In the meantime, the preteen girl sets out to make life as difficult as possible for her temporary parents, telling herself, “I can’t go soft—not as long as I’m nobody’s little girl—not while I’m just something to play musical chairs with.” The parents who hurt most were not the mean ones, but the ones who hugged and cuddled her and left her behind when they moved to Florida. Once burned, twice shy—and thrice determined to stay one step ahead of whatever Child Protective Services can throw at her. “She could stand anything—as long as she was in charge.”
But Gilly doesn’t know what to make of Maime Trotter, a Jesus-praising, sloppy-kissing widow the size of a hippo, with a heart to match. Trotter actually seems determined to love the girl no matter what, in spite of sulkiness, rudeness and all-around bad behavior. To her other unattractive qualities Gilly adds bigotry–it seems to her that fate is especially cruel to park her next door to an elderly black man (who has to come over for dinner every night) and stick her in a sixth-grade class taught by a “colored” teacher who takes no backtalk.
Now, the standard happy ending would have Gilly eventually laying down her arms, adjusting her attitude, and finding a permanent home in Trotter’s unconventional household, but it’s not to be. In a surprising twist, she is thwarted by her own willful actions. Even so, love has unlocked the barred gates and Trotter’s simple but powerful faith has found its target, leading Gilly to rethink some of her hardened views.
Katherine Paterson was already a highly respected author when the novel was published, having won a National Book Award in 1977 for The Master Puppeteer and the 1978 Newbery Medal for The Bridge to Terabithia. The Great Gilly Hopkins won both the National Book Award and a Newbery honor in 1979, and was almost immediately shuffled on to numerous “banned books” lists. That is, the book was never actually banned, but some people, mostly parents, raised objections. The flashpoint was Gilly herself—her terrible attitude and a mouth of the sort our great-grandmothers would have washed out with soap.
The profanity is mild, but for the record there’s a lot of “hell” (about 15 instances), some “damn” (five or six), and much taking of God’s name in vain, though almost all of it in lower case, and corrected by Trotter. A real-life Gilly, as smart and put-upon as the fictional one, would say a lot worse—we all recognize that, but still the language has its effect. Paterson famously defended her choice of words this way: “Gilly is a lost child who lies, steals, bullies, despises those who are different or perceived to be weaker—a child like this does not say ‘fiddlesticks’ when frustrated.”
“Children are not born magnanimous, they are born small,” she said in another context. “They have to grow into persons large enough to be able to love their neighbors, not to speak of their enemies.” In the course of the novel, Gilly begins to grow. I believe the virtues of her story far outweigh the legitimate concerns about her language, but readers who are around the age of the title character should be prepared for it. It’s not a comic or adventure novel. Though touches of humor keep the mood from being oppressive, it’s a serious novel, and children need to be taught how to read serious fiction seriously. (Many of the kids’ reviews on this site show a lack of comprehension.) This is a good novel to think about and ask questions about. Such as