A Summary of the "The Great Gilly Hopkins": Characters & Plot

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The Great Gilly Hopkins was written in 1978 by Katherine Paterson. Even though it wasn’t written for today’s generation, the themes and people in the book still ring true. Even today it is a well loved novel often read in school.

Characters in the Book

Galadriel Hopkins - she was named after a character in Lord of the Rings. She’s eleven years old, and for reasons the book doesn’t really cover, is not taken care of by her mother. Instead, she’s been floated from foster home to foster home since birth, and lives in Maryland.

Miss Ellis - her social worker. She is often disappointed in Gilly. She admits that she’s had some unfortunate placements, but also believes that if Gilly had a better attitude, she would be better off. She thinks Gilly should be positive and make the best of her situation.

Mamie Trotter - who is just called “Trotter”, is said to be one of the best foster mothers in the system. She seems excited to have Gilly with her and is very friendly. She is overweight, wears glasses, and her house keeping leaves something to be desired, as demonstrated when Gilly enters and has to wipe a layer of dust off the piano bench.

William Earnest Teague - is a small, seven year old boy, with glasses like Trotter and brown hair. He is nervous and easy to tease, often flinching as though expecting a blow that never falls. The book hints that he might be a little slow academically, although he does have moments where his intelligence surprises everyone, including a time when he was able to interpret a poem better than the rest of the family.

Mr. Randolph - lives next door to Trotter. He’s an elderly black man, who happens to be blind. Gilly goes and fetches him for dinner every night and takes him home. He has an extensive collection of books, and Gilly often gets asked to read to the family.

Agnes Hopkins - is another abandoned little girl that tries to befriend Gilly at school. Gilly, not interested in making friends, does nothing but insult the girl. Even still, Agnes doggedly tags along.

Courtney Rutherford Hopkins - is Gilly’s mom, who gave her the fanciful name and not much else. She is a so-called flower child living in San Francisco. She has given Gilly an inscribed picture, and does send her postcards saying how she wished Gilly was with her, but she never really comes to rescue her daughter. The book doesn’t really say whether this is because she cannot or will not.

Miss Barbara Harris - is Gilly’s teacher at her new school. She is smart and funny, and sees through some of Gilly’s tricks. She asks to call her Galadriel, saying how much she enjoyed Lord of the Rings, the book series that her name comes from. Gilly denies this request.

Basic Plot Summary

When Gilly first arrives with Trotter, she finds the house and her foster mother loathsome. She sleeps in a tiny room, and longs for her mother. She reasons to herself that Courtney (she has a hard time calling her Mom) is going to come for her the very moment she can.

Gilly also has a hard time with the fact that Mr. Rudolph is black, even though he has been nothing but kind to Gilly. She thinks William Earnest is weird, and especially hates it when he shows her up by interpreting a poem about dandelions.

In school, our heroine has an even harder time, given that her teacher is black as well, even though she is nothing but kind and intelligent, and can tell that Gilly herself is quite smart. In order to get at her teacher, she makes a card and puts a racist joke it in. The plan backfires when Miss Harris tells Gilly she admires her courage. She also writes a letter to Courtney using a return address on a post card. She talks about how hard it is, and how the neighbor is black, and how Courtney should come get her.

Slowly, Gilly also becomes accustomed to her foster family. Especially when there is one weekend where Mr. Rudolph, Trotter, and William Earnest all catch the flu. It is up to Gilly alone to take care of them, and she quickly learns that being part of a family means taking care of one another through the good and the bad times.

Gilly also enlists the help of Agnes to steal some money she finds in Mr. Rudolph’s house behind some of his books. She takes the cash and tries to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco and her mother. The cops take her back home.

Around then, Gilly’s grandmother, a woman called Nonnie, whom Gilly has never met, comes to collect her. Courtney has written to her to ask her to take custody of her daughter. Nonnie wasn’t even aware that Gilly was alive, a fact she assures her of multiple times.

Gilly suddenly finds that she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay with Trotter and William Earnest and even Mr. Rudolph. Ms. Ellis tells her she could have stayed, but now it’s all out of her hands. She goes and lives with her grandmother, and slowly, they begin to bond.

Courtney comes for the holidays, but instead of staying forever, as Nonnie thought she would, she only comes for a brief few days. Gilly finds that she only came at all because Nonnie sent her money. Dismayed that her fantasy about her mother is broken, Gilly decides that she should go back to stay with Trotter.

However, upon calling her foster mother and announcing she’s coming home, she is told she can’t. Trotter assures her that she does love her, but that she needs to stay where she is now. Gilly writes to William Earnest, Trotter, and even Miss Harris, who sends her the Lord of the Rings novels.