The Great Gilly Hopkins | Study Guide

Katherine Paterson

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The Great Gilly Hopkins | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Foster Home

Gilly Hopkins is an 11-year-old foster child who is brought to her third foster home in less than three years. Gilly is mean, tough, and hard to manage. She takes an immediate dislike to her new foster mother Trotter because Trotter is overweight, not well educated, and a terrible housekeeper. Gilly thinks Trotter's foster son William Ernest is weird and calls him "retarded." She's especially unhappy that she's expected to eat dinner with their neighbor Mr. Randolph, a black man who is blind. She longs for her mother Courtney to come get her. Gilly hasn't seen or had any contact with Courtney since she was three. All Gilly has is one picture of her mother that is inscribed, "For my beautiful Galadriel, I will always love you." Gilly imagines her mother as a tall, beautiful woman who will one day swoop in to carry Gilly home.

Things go from bad to worse for Gilly when she starts school the next day. She's horrified to find that her new sixth-grade teacher Miss Harris is black, as are many of her fellow students. Gilly is also behind them in math. She does not like the thought of being considered dumb compared to those students. Gilly is very bright, but she likes to upset teachers in her schools by working hard and then suddenly no longer trying.

Taking Control

Gilly is determined to take control of her situation and get out of her foster home. She unexpectedly discovers money hidden in Mr. Randolph's bookcase and hatches a plan to steal more money to buy a bus ticket to California where Courtney lives. Against her better judgment, she asks William Ernest and her only friend Agnes to help her look for more money in Mr. Randolph's bookcase. Gilly is frustrated when she doesn't find enough money to buy a bus ticket. She writes a letter to Courtney complaining about the horrible foster home she's living in and asking her to send more money for the bus ticket. Several days later Gilly discovers $100 in Trotter's purse and steals it. She now has enough money to get to California. She packs her suitcase and heads for the bus station where she tries to buy a one-way ticket to California. The ticket agent takes a very long time to bring the ticket to her. While she waits two policemen arrive and take her to the police station. A little later Trotter and William Ernest arrive at the police station. The police think they should keep Gilly overnight, but Trotter argues that no "child of mine" will be kept in jail. William Ernest begs Gilly to come home with them, and Gilly finally agrees.


Trotter makes Gilly return the money to Mr. Randolph and apologize to him. She gives Gilly a list of chores to work off the money she stole. One of the chores is helping William Ernest with his homework. As Gilly spends time with William Ernest, she begins to like him and worries about becoming too attached to her foster family. Just before Thanksgiving Mr. Randolph, Trotter, and William Ernest get sick. Gilly takes care of them and finds that she likes being needed. By Thanksgiving Day the house is a disaster and her patients are scattered around the house. The doorbell rings and Gilly opens the door to find an older woman. She invites the woman into the chaos. The woman says she is Gilly's grandmother and that Gilly's situation is clearly as bad as she described in the letter to Courtney. She vows to get Gilly out of there. Gilly realizes then she doesn't want to leave.

Gilly's letter has put into motion events that she can't control. Gilly's mother Courtney and grandmother Nonnie decide that they want Gilly to live with her grandmother permanently. There's nothing Trotter can do when Gilly begs to stay with her. A few days later, Gilly has a goodbye dinner with Trotter, Willliam Ernest, and Mr. Randolph. Then Gilly's grandmother Nonnie takes Gilly to her home. Nonnie is a widow who lives alone, and she hasn't seen Courtney in 13 years. She had only recently learned about Gilly. Gilly tries to be polite to Nonnie for Trotter's sake. She starts attending a new school and writes and receives letters from William Ernest, Miss Harris, and Trotter.

Just before Christmas Nonnie and Gilly excitedly decorate the house in preparation for a visit from Courtney. They go to the airport to pick her up. Gilly is surprised to find that Courtney is not the beautiful young woman of her fantasies. Courtney immediately starts fighting with Nonnie. Gilly is devastated to realize that Courtney only came because Nonnie sent her money and that she has no intention of taking Gilly home with her. She calls Trotter in tears and tells her she wants to come home. Trotter tells Gilly that she is home. Gilly tells Trotter that she loves her. She returns to Nonnie and says she's ready to go home. She knows that Trotter would be proud of her.

The Great Gilly Hopkins Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Gilly Hopkins arrives at her new foster home.

Rising Action

2 Gilly steals money to buy a bus ticket to her mother.

3 Gilly writes to her mother to complain about her new home.

4 Gilly takes care of her foster family when they get sick.


5 Gilly must leave Trotter to live with her grandmother.

Falling Action

6 Gilly realizes her mother will not make a home for her.


7 Gilly tells her grandmother she's ready to go home with her.

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