A few years ago I reviewed Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia during the annual banned books write-off here on Epinions. Bridge is a Newbery award winning mid-grade novel that deals with death and grief. Its realism, and its very real characters, have made the book controversial.
But Bridge is not the only book by Paterson that has been challenged and threatened with banning. Her Newbery-honor winning The Great Gilly Hopkins, published in 1978, has also made some well-meaning adults express concern. I'm a big Paterson fan, and Gilly has long been just about my favorite of all her novels. I re-read it recently, in honor of banned books week, and tried to put myself in those concerned parents' shoes. It was easier than it had ever been before since I'm now a parent (and the last time I read this book, I don't think I was yet). And while I think some of the concerns are valid, I still have to say that this book is wonderful. It gets me right in the solar plexus every time I read it.
A Girl...and a Story...With a Lot of Heart
Gilly is the story of an eleven year old girl who has been bounced from foster home to foster home since she was three. As you might expect, she is highly insecure. As you might also guess, she tends to "act out" in ways that deny any such insecurity. Gilly's bravado is her shield and defense against an inconsistent and not very faithful world. She prides herself on being a terror, on keeping the homes she enters, and the foster parents who take her in, completely on edge. Doing so not only gives her some semblance of control over her chaotic life, it also insures that she doesn't get too emotionally close to anyone. And that's a good thing, isn't it? From Gilly's perspective it is. Because you never know when your foster parent (or your caseworker) might uproot you again.
I'm writing, of course, as an adult summarizing what's going on just under the surface in this story. Paterson's gift is that she shows (not tells) the complex emotions of this story by writing tremendous characters, characters that will not only stick with children but help them to understand some deep emotions and difficult situations. Gilly is one of her finest characters ever. Note that I did not say one of her most likable -- though I defy anyone not to feel love for this child before the story is done --- but certainly one of her most memorable. It's easy to relate to Gilly even if you've never felt similar depths of abandonment.
If Gilly were left to wallow in her resentment, hurt and anger, we wouldn't have much of a story. But there are notes of healing and redemption sounding through the whole novel. At story's beginning, Gilly finds herself landing in yet another foster home, but there's a difference in this one: the foster mother, Maime Trotter, has been taking in kids as broken as Gilly for years and no matter how nasty and mean-spirited Gilly gets, it never seems to shake her -- or her real affection for Gilly. Trotter (as she's called) is an enormous woman, large in both body and heart, and despite Gilly's initial disrespect for her (she makes fun of her weight and also fumes over Trotter's slowness) Trotter's rock solid common sense and her ability to love begin to wear down Gilly's stock defenses.
The rest of this delightfully odd, makeshift family consists of Mr. Randolph (a blind, black man who lives next door and enjoys most meals at Trotter's house) and William Ernest, usually called W.E., a very skinny little boy with glasses who is also Trotter's foster child. W.E. is terrified of Gilly from the start, and she stokes his anxieties, assuming that getting to W.E. is a way to get to Trotter.
Gilly is really the story of a broken-hearted child, longing for home, who has turned into a master manipulator to deal with her pain -- and the way love begins to melt down all her emotional armor. We watch as Gilly changes from a child who lies, steals and cusses into a child who learns respect and caring...but it's never an easy road, and the ending is far from the sentimental happy ending you might expect from a novel written for this age group.
What age group is it for? Despite the fact that marketers keep putting images of a very young Gilly on the cover (she often looks eight or nine) Gilly is in fact eleven and in the sixth grade. And I don't think I would give this book to a child younger than 11 or 12. I know YA fiction is looking very sophisticated these days, so books with eleven year old protagonists seem to get pushed on younger and younger kids (as though they are somehow beneath teenagers) but I would call this a true mid-grade novel, best appreciated by children in the 11-14 age range. They will be more ready than their younger counterparts to engage the depth of emotions. They also will understand that Gilly is not set up as a model of beahvior.
The Controversies at the Book's Heart
I think for many people, controversies over this book are probably rooted in the language Gilly uses. Although the story is told in third-person, we stay firmly with Gilly's perspective, and she is one mad kid at the beginning. She thinks swear words, and she says a mouthful of them too, though most of them are relatively mild swear words (not the R-rated variety). She also takes the Lord's name in vain, though Trotter, clearly and unabashedly Christian, puts a stop to that quickly, at least when Gilly is under her roof. Part of the subtle ways in which Paterson shows Gilly's growth is the softening of this coarse language. Almost without our realizing it (and perhaps without Gilly realizing it too) Gilly not only learns enough self-control to stop saying such things (at least some of the time!) but gains enough peace and calm to stop thinking them so much.
Paterson has been asked about why she chose to have Gilly think and speak in such a way, and she answers the way I think most thoughtful writers do, putting the choice in the context of faithfulness to the story she's telling: "...a child like this does not say 'fiddlesticks" when frustrated. I could not duplicate her real speech with out drowning out the story in obscenity, but I had to hint at her language. She would not be real if her mouth did not match her behavior." And oh, does Gilly feel real!
Perhaps more problematic for some than Gilly's language are her racial attitudes. Gilly is filled with prejudices toward anyone different than herself, and particularly struggles with prejudices toward black people. Her attitudes come to the forefront because Mr. Randolph, Trotter's next door neighbor, is African-American -- though it's hard to tell at first if Gilly fears him more for his color or his blindness. Her teacher, Miss Harris, is also black, and at one point Gilly sends her a shocking anonymous card that strongly suggests a racial epithet. Miss Harris' response to Gilly, here and elsewhere, is so full of grace and humor that she will likely become a heroine for many children. But it is Gilly's growing relationship with Mr. Randolph, a truly wonderful man who helps open her eyes and heart to the wider world (and to poetry) that seems to add the richest harmony to the main melody of Trotter's motherly love. Gilly's longing for a mother is even deeper perhaps than her longing for a home, and Paterson weaves into the narrative some unexpected encounters with Gilly's real mother that reinforce the idea that sometimes life just isn't fair.
You'll see, I think, why some parents are concerned. Between the language and the racial attitudes, you have enough ingredients here to offend different kinds of people on different kinds of grounds. I think the key to helping people understand and respect books like this, beyond getting them to read them for themselves (and feel their tremendous power as stories) is to gently remind them that stories like this are meant to describe not prescribe. Nowhere does Paterson laud Gilly's behavior. She simply presents it for what it is, lets the little girl's pain and anger break your heart, and then helps you move and grow through those things with Gilly. I don't think I would turn even an eleven or twelve year old loose with this book without making sure I had the opportunities to talk about it with them as they read -- and what a marvelous opportunity for conversation and learning it could provide! I just think books are best in community. But I'm sure there are plenty of kids who have read this book, even in isolation, and who have grown from it. It's full of wisdom.
It's also full of humor. I think I'll end on this note, because I'm a tad bit afraid that words like brokenness, abandonment and resentment are going to make you think The Great Gilly Hopkins will fall to the floor from its own weight. Instead, it tends to bob on a string like a helium balloon. Gilly's bravado sometimes looks as silly as you might expect it to, and Paterson's way with words can turn even a small vignette into a masterpiece. You'll love watching Gilly's battle of wills with the crafty Trotter over not wanting to comb her hair, and the scene where the whole family comes down with flu at Thanksgiving (right in time for the caseworker and another important visitor to arrive) might make you laugh till you cry.
Gilly spends a lot of the story thinking of herself as "great" -- powerful, controlling, strong, manipulative. I don't think there's any mistake that she's named for Galadriel, the elven-fairy princess of Tolkien who struggles with temptations to misuse power. In the end, somewhat like Galadriel, Gilly's assessment of herself diminishes -- but again, like Galadriel's, only to become more grounded in reality and in love. This is a deeply profound novel, one that I'm glad Katherine Paterson had the courage to write. Long live Gilly...may she continue to find a home on many shelves.
The Great Gilly Hopkins
by Katherine Paterson
Newbery Honor book
This is an entry in the banned books write-off annually hosted by pestyside. Thank you to Patsy for continuing to run this write-off each year, and for giving us the opportunity to talk about some excellent books.
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