The Great Gilly Hopkins: the kids, the neighborhood, what I was not

The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson. 1978.

When I was eight or so, I had to spent a lot of time at my great-grandparents’ house. It was a tiny, tumbledown thing with low ceilings. My Papaw and Mamaw didn’t move much. Neither did their faces. Mamaw had Alzheimer’s, so you couldn’t blame her; she mainly nodded and swayed in her towel-draped chair. Papaw was fine; his face was just set like that. He had the color and scowl of a cigar-store carving. He was not unkind, but he had little to say to me, or to anyone, and I did not know what to do with myself while I was there with my father.

The house had almost no privacy, and certainly no cable. If the weather was nice, I might go in the little backyard, and find some blackberries in season, but there was no seat and no shade. There was Mama-cat, who often lay in the driveway, but she had other local responsibilities, and she didn’t care to be much company. I wasn’t allowed to walk through the neighborhood, but I could see that there were children in the yard of the house across the street, and I wondered if I could make friends. Not those kids, I was told. Those are foster kids. They’re mean. One of them’s retarded. I’d leave them alone if I was you.

This place was where I imagined the world of Gilly Hopkins.

Gilly is a liar, an open racist, a bully and a thief, about eleven years old. She has bounced between foster families all her life. Her only inheritance from her mother is her first name, Galadriel, and one worn-out, signed photo of a stunning woman. After Gilly is sent to the house of Maime Trotter, an embarrassingly jovial and pious foster parent, she pulls out all the stops to get herself back to her half-mythical mother. When Gilly accidentally succeeds, the result breaks her heart.

No one assigned me this book. I’m not sure where I picked it up. It’s not easy for my grown self to understand why it captivated me. Why should it have? I was a lucky kid, warm in the winter and cool in the summer, spoiled and only. All the grownups in my life loved me. I had access to books in abundance. In my time, fairy tales and middle-grade fiction alike often starred a child without a parent. Kids raised on those stories sometimes daydream about being orphans or half-orphans far from home, about the adventures they would find if they had a chance to live on their wits, which is a thing you can do in children’s books, and which appears to be a great deal of fun.

The Great Gilly Hopkins was the first book to show me what it would be like to be an orphan. Other stories might make some reference to tears, to sadness for the safely dead, but they didn’t show you what being without a family would make you. Gilly is tough because no one else will take care of her. She is racist because all she knows about her family is that they come from Virginia horse country, and certainly the Hopkins of Loudoun County wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and what is she if she isn’t a Hopkins? Of course I never said to myself, at age nine, surely her circumstances have made her what she is. I just . . . understood.

Adults remember the cruelty of children, but they don’t remember the empathy, the way it blooms unlooked-for, like white clover in a highway median. The cruel children and the feeling children may be the same ones, on different days, in different hours. As a kid, I was occasionally racist, even openly racist. My parents were liberal and wonderful and diligent, but we were white after all, and I was in Mississippi; it was aerosolized. After the horror I felt at reading about Gilly carefully, methodically stealing money from an elderly, blind black man while pretending to clean his house, I was never such a rotten little bint again. At least, not on purpose. Of these things, we can never know ourselves.

I always saw Gilly and Maime Trotter living across the street from my Mamaw and Papaw, in a house that looked just like theirs. The book was breathingly close to me. Everything in it was unpleasant, and still I liked to spend time in it. I wish I could tell you I snuck off and made friends with those children across the way, but I never did. I was shy and cowardly, and I never had much in common with kids my age in any case, and so it went.

On looking into it, I find they’ve made a movie of The Great Gilly Hopkins, which will get a muted US release sometime this year. Kathy Bates and Octavia Spencer will be wonderful, as they always are, but the actress playing Gilly looks too teenaged, too lovely, not scrawny and filthy enough. And it doesn’t seem to be a period piece, which the original has become. Still, movies do what movies do, and we watch for our own reasons. I will watch, possibly alone in the theater. At some point, for certain, I will pretend not to cry.

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