THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson

Our second Mother-Daughter book of the year was The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I picked this one because my all-time Paterson fave, Bridge to Terabithia, is so terribly sad, and I wasn’t sure book club was the right venue for it. And the other Paterson I remember, Jacob Have I Loved, got surprisingly bad reviews on Goodreads and I feared that my (positive) memory of it was flawed. So I opted for The Great Gilly Hopkins, which I don’t remember reading as a kid.

Gilly is a 11 year-old foster child who has been shuttled from home to home, and in the process has developed a tough veneer, a terrible reputation, and an undying hope that her mother, who lives in California and periodically sends her postcards, will come and rescue her. When the book opens, Gilly has landed in her latest foster home, living with a large, mostly uneducated woman named Mrs. Trotter and another foster child, W.E., who is meek and quiet. Gilly makes a snap decision upon her arrival: she is better than these people, and she needs to get out. By the time she has hatched an escape plan, however, she finds that she is slowly warming to Trotter and W.E., and ultimately learns to care for them. Unfortunately, she has set the wheels in motion, and her happy-ever-after at the Trotters is soon at risk when an unexpected relative shows up to take her away. Will Gilly have to say goodbye to the first people who have ever made her feel loved?

The Great Gilly Hopkins is a bit dated. First, there is the theme of racism through the book – Gilly’s teacher is black, as is Trotter’s neighbor who comes to dinner every night – and Gilly has to face her own prejudices as they both win her over. Second, Gilly’s birth mother is a former flower child who has lost her way, a concept that 2013 9 year-olds didn’t get. There are also a lot of bad words throughout that probably wouldn’t be in today’s middle grade fiction.

Gilly is also a sad read. Gilly’s not a terribly nice kid, but sad things happen to her, and pretty much everyone in the book has lost loved ones and is leading a somewhat lonely life. My daughter didn’t love the book (only one of them read it). She thought it was sad and kind of weird, and that Gilly wasn’t a nice person. Other girls in the book club felt similarly – I don’t think any of them said that they liked the book.

That said, we had a robust and substantive conversation about Gilly. There is a lot of fodder for discussion – when did Gilly decide she liked the Trotters? was the ending a happy one? did she change over the course of the book? what did she learn about racism and judging people? etc. This was one of our best discussions yet. The book may be dated but there are some universal themes here that have withstood the last 40 years.

So while The Great Gilly Hopkins was not an easy or pleasurable read for 9 year-olds, it provided some good food for thought. Perhaps Bridge to Terabithia would have been the better option in the end.