Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush
by Virginia Hamilton
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel for young adults set in an urban ghetto during the early 1980s; published in 1982.
A young girl learns of her family’s secret past when she and her brother are visited by the ghost of her uncle, “Brother Rush.”
Virginia Hamilton was born in 1936 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where years earlier a fugitive slave on her mother’s side of the family had settled. The family grew, working at farming and indulging in storytelling, a skill shared by both of Hamilton’s parents. Hamilton moved to New York after college, where she wrote and began a family of her own before moving back to Ohio some fifteen years later. Meanwhile, in her fiction, family became an important element. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, one of over a dozen books Hamilton wrote for young people, features the family of an adolescent named Tree. Forced to raise her children alone, Tree’s mother struggles to earn a living at a job that keeps her away from home too often. The novel exposes the desperation and isolation that poverty often brings but also offers hope that through struggle, hardships can be overcome.
Single parents and the crisis of the black family
In the early 1980s two-thirds of adult African American women were single or living away from their husbands. In addition, the majority of African American children did not live with their fathers (Anderson, p. 273). The reason for the predominance of single-parent families in the African American community has been a subject of intense debate among researchers and historians. Some have claimed that the black community is a “matriarchal” society, one that is dominated by women. One group of scholars points to this as evidence that the African American community has still not recovered from the brutal effects of slavery: about one-third of slave families were broken up as children, fathers, and mothers were sold to separate owners, and the remainder lived under the constant threat of such a forced separation. There are researchers who argue that the specter and reality of this forced breakup has contributed to contemporary family breakdown. Others have argued that matriarchy has its roots in African traditions.
In addition to these theories, many researchers have argued that the economic hardships African Americans have endured throughout history, often as a result of racism, are responsible for the large number of single mothers in the African American community. These researchers note that the fact that many African American men have had to struggle to find well-paying jobs has taken a toll on their self-confidence. They point to the fact that the number of single mothers increased when African Americans migrated from farms to cities at the beginning of this century. This change brought with it massive unemployment in the African American community; all of a sudden, large numbers of men found themselves without jobs and unable to support their families. According to one writer, the loss of self-esteem that comes with unemployment is largely responsible for African American men having a lack of commitment to women. The writer explains that “as a hedge against masculine failure, many poor black men attempted to limit their affective ties and economic commitments to families” (Anderson, p. 273).
The theory that the large number of single mothers in the African American community is due to economics is strengthened by the fact that in middle-class African American families with gainfully employed men, there are much fewer single mothers than there are in African American communities that have high male unemployment (Anderson, p. 275).
The burden of raising children alone
Regardless of the causes of the large number of single-parent African American families, the reality is that through much of American history many African American children have been raised alone by single mothers. Often these women were forced both to work long hard hours and to fulfill the roles played by two parents in many families. This obviously difficult task has taken a toll on many children. In addition, even with hard work, single mothers who do not have the benefit of a second income are often unable to pull their families out of poverty. According to Anderson, African American economic success or mobility “rests firmly on the two earner family” (Anderson, p. 275). In the novel Tree’s mother works many hours to keep her family from slipping into deep poverty. These many hours keep M’Vy from being with her children. In fact, Tree is left alone for days at a time to care for her brother Dab, and her mother does not even appear until the middle of the novel. The cause for this absence is largely economic. “Poor honey—my baby… . Know I’d be here every moment if I could,” M’Vy explains as she tries to comfort Tree (Hamilton, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 90). However, her job is far away and she claims that there is little hope of finding a closer one. “I got to work where I can and hope for some-thin closer to home” (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 95). M’Vy copes as best she can and more positively than once was the case. At first, when she gave birth to Dab, M’Vy was poor, single, and very young. These conditions were too much for her to handle at the time, and although she would later regret it, she abused Dab.
Ronald Reagan and the increase in urban poverty
Politically, the early 1980s are remembered as a very conservative period. Ronald Reagan, who was elected president in 1980, set out to cut social programs and lower welfare benefits. Reagan won popularity with many Americans by verbally attacking single “welfare mothers” who lived in America’s urban ghettos. This type of attack led one writer to lament, “what sets my teeth on edge is . . . its apparent hostility to the female poor, who form a majority of the population known colloquially as ‘welfare cheats’” (Ehrenreich, p. 192). Reagan’s policies in the early 1980s resulted in the poorest citizens of the country getting poorer while the richest citizens grew richer. This increase in the poverty of those living in the ghetto only put further pressure on poor African American families, already struggling to stay together.
CHILD ABUSE AND SINGLE PARENTS
Single mothers face some persisteni pressures in raising their children. Those who must support their families without the extra income of a spouse must often contend with difficult financial circumstances. Having to raise a child alone is another obvious pressure. These concerns can cause immense frustration in single-parent mothers, frustration that may be taken out on the children. Studies indicate that single parenthood combined with poverty has often led mothers to abuse their children and that the likelihood of child abuse increases among teenage single mothers. According to one long-term study, “in the period 1979-1988 about 2000 child deaths were recorded annually in the United States as a result of abuse and neglect…. The most vulnerable children are those under two years of age whose parents are single or were very young at their first pregnancy” (Fontana and Besharov, p. 13).
Kinship ties and the African American community
Despite the high number of large single-mother families, the African American community at large has historically exhibited a strong sense of commitment among its members. According to historian Steven Mintz and anthropologist Susan Kellogg, this commitment has existed since slavery. They write, “Despite the frequent breakup of marriages and families by sale, Afro-Americans managed to forge strong and durable family and kinship ties within the institution of slavery” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 67). If children were sold and separated from their parents, often other slaves would take on the burden of raising them. “Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations,” Mintz and Kellogg explain, “grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins often took on the functions of parents. When blood relatives were not present, strangers cared for and protected children” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 69).
Despite the strains that economic hardship, racism, and unemployment have placed on the contemporary African American family, kinship ties, as during slavery, remain strong. Although single-mother families are predominant in the African American community, often neighbors or other family members fulfill needs commonly taken care of by mothers and fathers. According to Mintz and Kellogg, in “present-day urban ghettoes, networks of kin or ‘fictive kin’ often share resources and responsibilities” (Mintz and Kellogg, p. 79). This is certainly the case in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. Silversmith, who is M’Vy’s boyfriend, provides a great deal of emotional support to Tree, even though the two have not known each other very long.
Virginia Hamilton and magical realism
In the 1970s and 1980s writers from around the world began writing in a style that has been called “magical realism.” Writers such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez began to intertwine elements of the supernatural with otherwise realistic plots. In Morrison’s Beloved the vengeful spirit of a murdered baby is present throughout the novel. In García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude a ghost inhabits a room in a family house and helps direct the course of strange events in the village. In contrast to science fiction—in which the reader is always aware of the fact that he is reading a work of fantasy because all the characters are placed in completely strange environments—in works of magical realism strange happenings mingle with realistic events.
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush presents the reader with a supernatural world in which a ghost joins characters who are portrayed very realistically. Although it is quite common for authors to include the dreams or fantasies of an individual character in realistic novels, in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush Hamilton makes it clear that the ghost of Brother Rush is real. Not only does Tree’s brother see the ghost, but so does the cleaning lady Miss Pricherd. If sightings of the ghost were limited to just one character, it could be seen as fantasy, but Hamilton portrays the ghost as a real character who interacts with several people.
The African roots of Hamilton’s magical realism
Hamilton has written that she uses the supernatural to portray the “mysteriousness” of African and African American culture. She sees her writing as a chance to “convey the magic, fetishes, to bring across the Africanness I’ve described…. It is a magic they [the Africans] brought with them. It is spells. It is everything they believed that we couldn’t understand” (Mikkelson, p. 67). Hamilton’s views on the African origins of connection with the supernatural world are shared by her character M’Vy. M’Vy explains to Tree that she is able to see ghosts because of her African heritage. She tells her, “I never seen the mystery…. But I remember the talk…. There was one who’d look at me and say Afrique! Afrique!’ And say some kind of words that rolled out of her like dancing on drums. And she told of mysteries, the way you learn them and see and feel them” (Hamilton, p. 130).
Bucking the trend in children’s literature
The early 1980s saw a large increase in the number of books published for teenagers. Many of these novels were part of what has been labeled the “romantic revival.” Novels such as Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams were set in the suburbs and focused on the love lives of white middle-class high school students. These novels ignored serious social problems like poverty, single-parent families, and death. The romance novels of the 1980s were attacked by many concerned critics for not addressing the struggles that many young people faced. Michael Cart contended that these books “teach girls that their primary value is their attractiveness to boys; devalue relationships . . . depict middle-class, white, small-town families as the norm; and portray adults in stereotypical sex roles” (Cart, p. 101). Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, by contrast, was praised by many critics for providing an alternative to the suburban romance novel. Hamilton refused to follow the trend of the time and instead wrote about a community often ignored by writers for teenagers.
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush focuses on the life of Theresa Pratt as she struggles to take care of her ailing brother, Dab, to confront the changes of adolescence, and to come to terms with her family’s horrible secrets. It is only with the help of her uncle, Brother Rush, that Theresa, or “Tree” as she is called, is able to cope with all that confronts her.
Tree first sees Rush as she is leaving school. Immediately she is attracted to him. “It was love at first sight in a beating of her heart that took her breath” (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 1). After her initial sighting of Rush, he was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, however, he appears in her living room, floating through the hardwood table, holding an oval mirror. As Tree watches Rush, she realizes that he is a ghost. Rush beckons her to come forward and invites her to enter into what turns out to be a magic mirror.
Inside the mirror Tree finds dead relatives and her mother as a young child. She has entered the world of her family’s past. Tree witnesses events that happened while she was very young. She rides around with Rush in his car at one point and is quite content. However, later on she witnesses a younger version of her mother beating her brother, who is only a baby. Tree then sees her mother tying young Dab to a bed.
In the real world, Tree and Dab are left to fend for themselves most of the time because their mother, M’Vy, works far away. Since Dab is mentally impaired and gets very sick during the course of the novel, Tree must often serve as nurse to her elder brother. M’Vy arrives home midway through the novel after Tree has already taken several trips into the mirror. Upon hearing of her daughter’s supernatural experiences, M’Vy informs them that she knows about the ghost of her dead brother, Brother Rush. Although M’Vy cannot see Brother when he appears, she certainly believes that Tree has seen him. “I didn’t see him. I felt him though. It was Brother…. He come visit my Tree” (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 132). M’Vy is further convinced that her daughter has seen a real ghost upon hearing that Miss Pricherd, the cleaning woman, has also seen Brother. M’Vy’s conviction that Tree has seen her dead brother is confirmed when Tree confronts her with the abuse that Dab suffered as a child. Emotional but relieved that the truth is out, M’Vy admits that she treated Dab horribly as a child and apologizes.
Toward the end of the novel, Dab’s illness, a fatal genetic disease, intensifies and eventually he dies. After Dab’s death Brother Rush invites Tree for one last trip into the mirror. Inside, she sits in the back seat of Brother’s car while he and Dab ride in the front. Although Tree is somewhat comforted by the knowledge that her brother is with Brother Rush, she is still angry at her mother for letting Dab deteriorate throughout his life. With M’Vy’s promise that she will become more of a mother, Tree begins to forgive.
Memories and the magic mirror
The magic mirror that Brother Rush allows Tree to enter is both mystical and filled with memories. By having Tree experience the world inside the mirror, Hamilton is able to explore the history of Tree’s family and to expose secrets that her mother has tried to hide. In addition to exposing the past abuse that M’Vy has wrought upon her family, the mirror also forces her to acknowledge the current abuse she has forced Tree to endure. The mirror serves not only to enlighten Tree and her mother about the past, but it forces them to confront present problems.
When Tree first confronts M’Vy with the news that she is aware that Dab was abused as a child, M’Vy is visibly shaken. Hamilton writes, “M’Vy’s legs quivered. She was sliding” (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 97). Overcome with guilt, M’Vy attempts to explain to Tree that she was young and could not deal with having to raise children alone, and M’Vy took her frustrations out on Dab.
Although the mirror focuses on bringing out events of the past, these memories serve to show both M’Vy and Tree that something is wrong with the present. M’Vy’s abuse of Dab was obviously horrible, and when she is confronted with these memories, she recognizes this. M’Vy, however, has also been abusive in another way; she has left her young daughter alone for days and weeks at a time to tend to her older brother. M’Vy is unable to recognize this neglectful abuse until the end of the novel. Tree blames M’Vy’s neglect for the death of her brother and her own intense depression. After Tree has related how kind and good Brother Rush could be to her and her brother and how important it is to her to be surrounded by family, M’Vy begins to recognize the damage her neglect has caused. If her family is to be free from abuse, M’Vy realizes, they must be together. At the end of the novel she cries, “All these years I’ve been wrong. I admit it. I should have taken less money and stayed with you and your brother…. I’m gone put it together” (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, p. 211). By being confronted by her wrongs of the past, M’Vy is made to realize the seriousness of the problems of the present.
As a child, Virginia Hamilton had little in common with her character Tree. She grew up in a small middle-class Ohio town and was raised by both her mother and her father. Her novels, however, are deeply influenced by her own memories of childhood. She believes that her stream-of-consciousness or dreamlike style of writing—in which she composed the chapters that describe Tree’s adventures inside the magic mirror—reflects the way that many children actually think. She explains in an interview, “I believe kids think in stream-of-consciousness…. If you look at some of the young writings, you’ll find it just keeps running on and on…. It’s as if the mind were talking in a stream” (Hamilton in Lesniak, p. 210).
Hamilton also credits her father, a musician, for influencing her style of writing, which has often been labeled musical or melodic. She explains, “I come from a rather musical family. My father was a musician, and I suppose my interest in music as it relates to fiction comes from him…. And I love music anyway so a lot of it enters my writing” (Hamilton in Lesniak, p. 208).
The reviews for Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush were tremendously positive. It was awarded a John Newbery Honor Book Award and a Coretta Scott King award. Reviewer Geral-dine Wilson praised the book’s use of African culture when she compared the book to an African quilt, “finely stitched, tightly constructed and rooted in cultural authenticity” (Wilson in Lesniak, p. 208). In The Horn Book Magazine, Ethel Heins describes the novel’s characters as “complex, contradictory, and ambivalent as is life itself: sometimes weak, sometimes attractive, always fiercely human” (Heins in Stine, p. 158). Although some reviewers claimed that the book might be hard for children to understand because of its stream-of-consciousness style and because it is written in the dialect of an African American ghetto, Katherine Paterson disagreed. Published in the New York Times Book Review, her evaluation set forth a challenge: “To the more timid reader, young or old, who may feel inadequate to Miss Hamilton’s always demanding fiction, I say: ‘Just read the first page, just the first paragraph, of “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush.” Then stop if you can’” (Paterson in Stine, p. 159).
Anderson, Karen. “African American Families.” In American Families. Edited by Joseph Hawes and Elizabeth I. Nybakken. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
Fontana, Vincent, and Douglas J. Besharov. The Maltreated Child. Springfield, III: Charles C. Thomas, 1996.
Hamilton, Virginia. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. New York: Avon Books, 1982.
Lesniak, James, ed. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolution: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.
Mikkelsen, Nina. Virginia Hamilton. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Stine, Jean C. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 26. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.