Life Spills Over For Better or Worse: A Review of ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins’

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and worse.”  Pope Benedict XVI

Reading Level:

Grades  4-5

Review and Thoughts:

Foster Child: a child without parental support and protection, placed with a person or family to be cared for, usually by local welfare services or by court order. This is Gilly Hopkins.  Gilly, or Galadriel Hopkins, is an eleven year old girl who is starting over yet again in the third foster home in three years through circumstances beyond her control.  Gilly’s life experiences have forced her to create a list of rules written on her heart.  These rigid rules are what she fights to live by:

  1. I will accept no kisses or hugs.
  2. I will be clever and hard to manage.
  3. I will dare anyone to accept me or change me.
  4. I will be in charge of my own life.
  5. I will never appear the fool.
  6. I will never need help.
  7. I will be in charge of my education by making teachers treat me differently.
  8. I will be tough.
  9. I will continue to build a reputation and be proud of it.
  10. I will never attach myself to something that is likely to blow away some day.
  11. I will be Galadriel Hopkins – some day.

A New Home.  With her small suitcase in hand and the armor of her code of conduct, Gilly follows the social worker to her new home. She immediately forms an opinion about her situation and what she will soon face. The house is rundown.  Her foster mother, Mamie Trotter, is just a freak.  The other kid who lives in the house, William Ernest Teague, seems slow – maybe even “retarded”. She quickly senses that he is scared of her, and she can use that to her advantage.

While Gilly is – well, Gilly, – Mamie Trotter is friendly and encouraging and overlooks Gilly’s refusal to be cooperative.  From the beginning, Gilly learns there are a few rules of behavior that Trotter has set in stone.  One of those is to treat William Ernest with respect and making fun of him is absolutely not allowed.  Another rule is not to use the Lord’s name in vain.  On her first day with her new family, Gilly meets another person who becomes a big part of her life.  She is asked to escort a neighbor, Mr. Randolph, to their house so he can join them for their nightly dinner and visit.  When she sees him for the first time she sees “a tiny, shrunken man.”  His whitish eyes in his brown face shock her at first, but then she realizes he is blind.  She reluctantly helps him by holding his elbow so he will not fall. She has never touched “one of those people.”

School. Trotter takes Gilly to school the next day, and the principal puts Gilly in Miss Harris’s 6th grade class. Her teacher is “tall and tea-colored.”  Gilly is visibly shaken when she realizes Miss Harris is black. Another challenge she faces is that she is behind in her lessons and that is unacceptable to her because she knows she is smart, and she refuses to appear an idiot in front of a class “that is half black.”  Then, her first recess does not go well in the eyes of the principal, but she is quite pleased.  She has a fight with six boys, and she wins.  She feels her power coming back.

Very soon after arriving at school Gilly meets a needy girl named Agnes Stokes. She is wary of Agnes’s constant presence because she does not know what she wants, and “her kind always want something.”  She already plans to use her and then dump Agnes when she is through.

A Real Mother.  Gilly has not seen her mother since she was three and does not know where she lives.  She vows to find her one day.  She does have a picture of the mother she remembers and studies it often.  More importantly, there is a message in the corner of the picture that she reads over and over. “For my beautiful Galadriel, I will always love you.”

Gilly gets quite a surprise when a post card from her mother arrives at her new home. This time she sees a return address and learns her mother lives in California.  She wonders if her mother will come for her if she asks.  Gilly knows in her heart that with her mother’s help she could transform from the Gilly she is now to an amazing Galadriel.

Schemes.  On the very first day Gilly comes to live with Trotter, she is asked to read to Mr. Randolph. She goes to his house to choose a book, which is not an easy decision because his house is filled with books.  When she finally pulls a book from the top shelf, money falls to the floor.  An idea begins to develop in her mind. If she could find more money behind more books she could use it to travel to California to be with her mother.

Gilly uses William Ernest and Agnes to help her search for money. There is a lot of effort to steal this money but in the end Gilly only finds another thirty-four dollars.  Her next plan is to dust Mr. Randolph’s house, which would give her easy access to all those books and time to search for more money.  She is discouraged when she does not find any.   In her frustration to be reunited with her mother, she decides to write a letter to her.  She describes her terrible foster family situation and how much she needs to leave, and then she dares to ask her mother to send money for a bus ticket.

The temptation to extort more money is still very strong however as Gilly takes one hundred dollars from Trotter’s purse.  She secretly packs and walks to the bus station.  There she attempts to buy a bus ticket but the observant clerk becomes suspicious of such a young girl traveling alone and calls the police. Trotter and William Ernest arrive at the station, but Gilly does not want to leave the station until William Ernest begs her to come home with them.  His sincerity has affected her once again.

The Social Worker. Miss Ellis, the social worker, has helped place Gilly in all her foster homes since the beginning.  She implores Gilly to make a fresh start in her new home when she first arrives.  Now she argues with Trotter about taking Gilly out of the home because of her stealing and running away. Gilly decides to stay with Trotter until her mom comes, and she is sure she will come.  Miss Ellis reminds Gilly again that her mother never came for her even when she lived rather close.

Changes of the Heart.  As soon as Miss Ellis leaves, Trotter confronts Gilly about stealing. This is another non-negotiable rule of the house.  She makes Gilly return the money and apologize to Mr. Randolph. He actually thanks her for returning the money.  Her heart is moved by his display of mercy, and she takes his hand to lead him to dinner.

Mr. Randolph, Trotter, and William Ernest get the flu.  Gilly takes care of everyone without complaint for several days. She cleans up the messes and makes sure everyone has what they need. The house does not look very clean, but her patients are well cared for.

Facing Reality.  While everyone is sick, Gilly’s grandmother comes to the door.  She did not know about Gilly until her daughter wrote to her after thirteen years of silence, and Gilly did not know about her grandmother. Her grandmother learns where she lives and her “terrible” situation because of Gilly’s letter so she wants to take Gilly to live with her. Gilly thinks “no one can make me leave here not when everyone needs me.”  She explains that her little group is her family – William Ernest is her brother, Trotter is her mother, and Mr. Randolph is her uncle. She cannot leave.

Miss Harris tells Gilly she now has to live with her grandmother permanently because her mother requested it. She is devastated and does not want to leave. She refuses to live with a grandmother she does not even know.  Miss Ellis sadly tells Gilly she is “a smart girl who goes around booby-trapping herself.” She has no choice once again.

Regrets.  Gilly is upset about the letter she wrote to her mother especially since she cannot remember exactly what she wrote.   She wants her mother, but her mother sends her grandmother instead.  And the biggest regret comes with the realization that “she loves those stupid people” in her foster family.

  1. She does not want to hurt her family.
  2. She just wants a home.
  3. She now realizes that Trotter tries to give her a stable home.
  4. “She just wants to stop being a foster child.”
  5. “She wants to belong.”
  6. She wants “to be herself, to be the swan, to be the ugly duckling no longer – Cinderella with both slippers on her feet – Snow White beyond the dwarfs – Galadriel Hopkins, come into her own.”

A Mother’s Love.  Living with her grandmother is not easy, but the grandmother is alone and Gilly knows what alone feels like.  They first connect on that level.

Her mother comes to visit on Dec. 23. Gilly is beside herself waiting for her to deplane.  When she finally sees her mother, her appearance is very different from the picture Gilly treasures.  She is a “flower child gone to seed.”  Then very soon after their greeting Gilly realizes her mother is only visiting for two days, and she is not taking her back to California. She knows her mother is not there because she wants to see her.  She has come because her grandmother bought her a ticket.  How could she have wasted her whole life on the lie – “I will always love you?”

Gilly desperately calls Trotter from the phone booth at the airport.  She tells her about her mother and asks to come home.  Trotter tells Gilly in a very straightforward way “…that good things don’t happen all the time.  Life is tough.”  She pushes her to see the reality of her life and challenges her to live it bravely. The conversation is harsh, but before she hangs up Gilly tells Trotter she loves her. Then she returns to her grandmother and mother.  There is no fan fare.  Nothing is different, and yet she knows “Trotter will be proud.”

The Great Gilly Hopkins is a story that has many themes and all are centered on Gilly as she begins the journey of becoming the Galadriel she yearns to be.  She believes her mother will make her new but as the story unfolds we see that every character has a role in her transformation.  Gilly goes from a disillusioned and isolated girl to someone who begins to see the qualities that make a person lovable – faithfulness, acceptance, and perseverance.  She begins to see people for who they are not the color of their skin or first impressions.  She allows her heart to open just a bit to feel compassion, concern, and empathy.  Gilly begins to see herself in a new light not weighed down by hopes that are entrenched on a weak foundation.  Gilly also sees the true qualities that make someone selfish and insensitive, but this negativity does not affect her as in the past because she recognizes what is worthy and good.

This book has a very good story and shows how people affect one another by their actions. It depicts the social issues of foster children, prejudice formed by ignorance, and judgment of people because of appearance or education.  The language is definitely overpowering and at times distracting. I do not think this is a book for fourth and fifth graders because of the language although the story is worthwhile.  I would definitely recommend that parents read this book first to determine if it is uplifting literature or problematic for their child.


National Book Award in category Children’s Literature – 1979

Christopher Award – 1979

Jane Addams Award – 1979

Newberry Honor – 1979

Georgia Children’s Book – 1981

Possible Concerns:

  • Gilly spreads chewed gum under the handle of the left-hand door as a sticky surprise for the next person who might try to open it.
  • Gilly describes Mamie Trotter, her new foster mother, as “this bale of blubber.” She considers Mamie a freak.
  • Gilly thinks Trotter looks like an after diet ad in her smile but a before diet in her body.
  • When Trotter says she never met a kid she couldn’t make friends with Gilly wants to vomit.
  • Gilly’s description of her new foster home: a gross guardian, a freaky kid, an ugly, dirty house.
  • When Gilly slams the door on Trotter because she wants to be alone she says, “God! Listening to that woman is like licking melted ice cream off the carton.”
  • When Trotter says she can watch Sesame Street with William Ernest, Gilly responds, ““My god you must think I’m mental or something.” “Then why the hell do you think I’m going to watch some retard show like that?”
  • “Good god. All I was trying to say –“
  • After being told not to take God’s name in vain, Gilly again says, “Good god!” Trotter raises a spoon and Gilly then says, “All right!  I didn’t say it.  Hell, a person can’t even talk around here.”
  • As Gillly reviews her new home she thinks, “A house run by a fat, fluff-brained religious fanatic with a mentally retarded seven-year old….” And, “It wasn’t fair to throw in a blind black man who came to eat.”
  • Trotter asks Gilly to make the beds. She spit every obscenity she’d ever heard through her teeth.  “That ignorant hippopotamus!  That walrus faced imbecile!”  She also thought, “Well, she would show that lard can a thing or two.”
  • When Trotter questions the principal for a clarification Gilly thinks, “Trotter, you dummy.” “Oh Trotter, shut your fool mouth.”  “But the principal didn’t seem to notice what a dope Trotter was.”
  • When Gilly meets her teacher she shrinks back and bumps into Trotter’s huge breast. Gilly thinks, “God, on top of everything else, the teacher is black.”
  • Gilly feels overwhelmed on her first day of school. She does not want to appear a fool in front of the class who was half black.  “And she would look dumb to them.  A bunch of…..”
  • Gilly describes a girl at recess this way. “… of whom was black with millions of tiny braids all over her head.  Like some African bush woman.”
  • When Gilly mentally plans to go to her mother in California she realizes how dangerous it would be. “People are always picking up. And beating them up. And killing them.  And pitching their dead bodies into the woods.”
  • Trotter knocks on Gilly’s door to see if she is okay and asks if there was anything she could do. Gilly thought, “Yeah.  Fry yourself, lard face.”  And then she says, “I will be (okay) if you get your fat self outta here!”
  • Randolph says a prayer before they eat and Trotter compliments him on his blessing. Gilly thinks, “Good lord, how was a person supposed to eat through this garbage?”
  • “The minute that damn first-grade teacher had told Mrs. Dixon that she was afraid Gilly might be ‘slow,’ Gilly had determined to make the old parrot choke on her crackers.”
  • Agnes Stokes waited for Gilly outside to walk to school with her. Gilly thought, “What a creep!”
  • “She wasn’t going to let a bunch of low-class idiots think they were smarter than she was.”
  • Gilly was mad at Agnes for knowing she got free lunches. “You know, don’t you, Agnes, it makes me sick just looking at you.” Gilly tells Agnes she has a big mouth. “Then keep it shut.  We wouldn’t want what’s left of your brains to trickle out.”
  • Gilly does not want to give in and have a snack after school. When she realizes the snack is chocolate chips cookies she thinks, “Double-damn you, Maime Trotter.”
  • Gilly steals some tape from her teacher.
  • Gilly felt she has gotten away with another trick. She thinks, “People are so dumb sometimes you almost feel bad taking advantage of them – but not too bad.”
  • Trotter tells Gilly she is special and she appreciates the way she has spent time with William Ernest. Gilly thinks, “Shut up, Trotter!  Shut up, Trotter, shut up!”
  • William Ernest nudges Gilly with is elbow to get her attention and she thinks, “What the hell?”
  • The Sunday school teacher talks about the sin of adultery. While another child does not even know what it was, Gilly “offered for sale not only the definition of the word but some juicy neighbors’ examples.”
  • Gilly wants to look older when she bought the bus ticket. She thought, “She was tall, but totally bustless.  ”
  • She knows the bus ticket clerk has called the police. “Damn! Oh god, make him go away!”
  • At the police station she wondered, “Should I just forget about the damn money?”
  • When the police ask her if she wants to go home she thinks, “Want to go home? Don’t I want to go home?  Where in the hell do you think I was headed?”
  • Gilly teaches William Ernest how to fight. She teaches him to say, “Get the hell out of my way!” when someone causes a problem.
  • Gilly explains why she is teaching him to say that. “Look Trotter.  He’s got to learn to take care of himself, and I’m the best damn – the best teacher around.”
  • When Trotter was sick on Thanksgiving she came into the kitchen thinking about the turkey. Gilly said, “What did you forget, dammit?”
  • When Gilly’s mother comes for a two day visit she is annoyed with her mother (the grandmother), and says, “Look. I came, didn’t I? ”My god.  I’ve been gone thirteen years, and you still think you can tell me what to do.”
  • Gilly calls Trotter on the phone from the airport and says, “Dammit, Trotter. Don’t try to make a stinking Christian out of me.” Then she says, “Go to hell, Trotter.

Further Discussion:

  • Sometimes we concentrate on our differences instead of our similarities. As children mature it’s also important to be able to recognize when group pressure is a force of intolerance and possibly extremes. Discuss judging people because of their race, religion, education, or appearance.
  • Write a letter to Gilly (or Galadriel). Tell her how you feel about her story.
  • Write an ending to the Gilly’s story. What is her life like now that she is living with her grandmother?  Does she still do well in school?  Does she make good friends?  Does she see her mother again?

Catholic Resources:

  • St. Jerome Emiliani is the patron saint of abandoned and orphaned children.
  • John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.”
  • CCC 2143  “Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. “The Lord’s name is holy.” For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it.”
  • CCC 2144  “Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes. The sense of the sacred is part of the virtue of religion:”
  • CCC 2155 “The holiness of the divine name demands that we neither use it for trivial matters…”
  • CCC 2153 “In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained the second commandment: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all…. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Jesus teaches that every oath involves a reference to God and that God’s presence and his truth must be honored in all speech. Discretion in calling upon God is allied with a respectful awareness of his presence, which all our assertions either witness to or mock.”
  • CCC 1931 “Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.”
  • CCC 2401 “The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property. Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.”



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