(Full name Virginia Esther Hamilton) American author of folktales, juvenile biographies, picture books, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2004. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 1, 11, and 40.
During a career that spanned decades, Hamilton helped launch a new era in the portrayal of African Americans in children's literature, working across a wide variety of genres including science fiction, magic realism, gothic fiction, and fantasy. Not only have many of her works received such honors as the National Book Award, but her novel M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974) was the first work ever to win both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. Hamilton, winner of every major award in her field, including the 1995 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement, is the granddaughter of an escaped slave, and many of her works offer unembellished presentations of her folk heritage in an effort to record these narratives for a new generation. Throughout her canon, Hamilton sought to bridge elements of the past with contemporary issues facing modern African Americans. Her overall contributions to the children's literature genre led Roberta Seelinger Trites to declare in the Spring 1998 issue of African American Review that Hamilton was "the most important author currently writing for children in the United States."
Hamilton was born on March 12, 1936, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Her maternal grandfather, Levi Perry, escaped slavery in the nineteenth-century American South by heading north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, making the treacherous crossing of the Ohio River. Eventually passing through the home of noted abolitionist John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, Perry settled in the racially tolerant village of Yellow Springs, among the last stops on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton's father and mother, Kenneth James and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, farmed on the Perry land, where Hamilton was born and raised, the youngest of five children. Following high school, Hamilton won a scholarship to nearby Antioch College, where she studied writing and began penning short stories. Transferring to Ohio State University after three years at Antioch, she was encouraged by a professor to try her luck getting published in New York City. Beginning in 1955, Hamilton annually summered in New York, working as a bookkeeper to support herself while she attempted to advance her career as a writer. Leaving Ohio State in 1958, Hamilton permanently settled in New York and became active in city's arts community. It was through jazz artist Charles Mingus that Hamilton met her husband, the poet and anthologist Arnold Adoff. The couple was married in 1960 and had two children, Leigh and Jaime Levi, named after her grandfather. Together, the couple lived briefly Europe, working in Spain and France on various writing projects. During this period, Hamilton and Adoff also traveled through North Africa, an experience that would leave a lasting impression on Hamilton and strongly influence several of her later books. Hamilton enrolled in the New School for Social Research in 1958, finishing her studies in 1960. On the advice of an instructor at the New School, she submitted a story she had written at Antioch to Macmillan, which was accepted and became the basis for her first young adult novel Zeely (1967). The work was well received by both critics and readers, marking the beginning of Hamilton's prolific career as an author for young readers. Since the publication of Zeely, Hamilton has received several prominent accolades, including the 1975 Newbery Medal, marking her as the first African American to win the prize, and the 1992 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Hamilton and Adoff eventually settled back in Yellow Springs, Ohio, returning to build a home on the Hamilton family's farmland. On February 19, 2002, Hamilton died from breast cancer, though her legacy remains alive in the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth held annually on the campus of Kent State University.
Zeely, Hamilton's first book, revolves around Elizabeth Perry—also known as Geeder—who is visiting her uncle in the country with her brother one summer when she encounters Zeely, a six-foot-tall young black woman who works on a nearby farm. Inspired by Zeely's overwhelming physical presence, Geeder spins folkloric tales about the woman, imagining her to be an enslaved Watutsi queen, until she is gently reminded by Zeely to appreciate her own heritage as an African American. Hamilton's second work, The House of Dies Drear (1968), winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for the best juvenile mystery of 1969, creates its plot using information about the Underground Railroad and the now nonexistent Dies House, a staging post on one of the slave escape routes. The Small Family—father, mother, Thomas, and infant twins—move into Dies House at the beginning of the novel, and the forbidding atmosphere of the place—with its false walls and secret passages—sets the tone. Unusual situations arise as Thomas discovers secret tunnels, and the book's most unusual character, Mr. Pluto, is introduced. Like Zeely, Pluto is larger than life, and his vivid green eyes, white hair, beard, and mysterious manner all add to his overpowering presence. Hamilton's third book reflects her move to New York in the late 1950s. The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969) is a frame story that begins in the Harlem apartment of Mama Luka, who baby-sits Lee Edward after school and tells him four legends of the mythical Jahdu, in which the title character encounters the allegorical figures Sweetdream, Nightmare, Trouble, Chameleon, and is revealed as clever, mischievous trickster. In Hamilton's next novel, The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), Buddy Clark, the leader of a group of homeless boys in New York City, refers to himself by the futuristic moniker "Tomorrow Billy," imagining himself as the protector of the "planets" where his young charges live. At school, he befriends Junior Brown, an overweight musical prodigy with a dysfunctional family life, and appoints himself as the boy's defender. As Junior plays hooky for most of his eighth-grade year, spending his time living in a fantasy world inspired by a model of the solar system in the school basement, Buddy does his best to protect his emotionally-disturbed friend from the harsh realities of his day-to-day life and encourages Junior to become more independent.
After publishing a juvenile biography of W. E. B. Du Bois in 1972, Hamilton returned to fiction with Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu (1973), set again in Mama Luka's Harlem apartment. In 1974 M. C. Higgins, the Great was published, following the lives of the Higginses, a close-knit family that resides on Sarah's Mountain in southern Ohio. The mountain has special significance to the Higginses, for it has belonged to their family since M. C.'s great-grandmother Sarah, an escaped slave, settled there. The conflict in the story arises when a huge spoil heap, created by strip mining, threatens to engulf the family home. M. C. is torn between his love for his home and his concern for his family's safety, and he searches diligently for a solution that will allow him to preserve both. Hamilton's Justice and Her Brothers (1978) marked the beginning of a new literary experiment for the author, representing her first foray into the science fiction genre. The first chapter in a trilogy, Justice and Her Brothers, revolves around four children who are gifted with extrasensory perception, or ESP. Throughout the trilogy—which also includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981)—Justice, her twin brothers, Thomas and Levi, and their friend Dorian mentally time travel to the future, finding themselves in a refuge for survivors of several massive, planet-wide environmental disasters. Discovering important methods with which to help the human species survive, the children return home at last, forewarned and enlightened, to be "just kids" once again. However, their fates are threatened several times as the result of Thomas' destructive sibling jealousy. When Hamilton's next novel appeared in 1982, it was, yet again, a departure from her previous works. In Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, a ghost, Brother Rush, appears to Teresa (called Tree) and her older, mentally disabled brother, Dabney (Dab), revealing separate episodes of their past to each. Thus Tree, now fourteen, learns that Dab was an abused child, causing her to seek out hitherto unknown relatives and learn about an inherited disease that is gradually, painfully, disabling her brother. As Tree learns about her and her brother's pasts, she becomes better able to deal with the present and its difficulties and tragedies.
In 1983 Hamilton published two works that varied from each other, and their predecessors, in both subject and style. The first, The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, follows a child god who yearns to leave her home on Mount Kenya in Africa. Pretty Pearl's brother, John de Conquer, grants her request and together they travel to America during the 1860s, changing shapes en route. After the siblings arrive in Georgia, Pretty Pearl learns about the Civil War with its bloody battlefields and Reconstruction. Eventually joining a group of freed slaves and their descendants hidden in the woods with a band of Cherokee Indians, Pretty Pearl assumes human form and adopts the last name of Perry. Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1983) returns to Hamilton's native Ohio for its setting. It is set on Halloween 1938, the day after Orson Welles's radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," which created a national furor with its fictional claims of an alien invasion. Willie Bea, convinced by her fortune-telling Aunt Leah that she has the Star of Venus on her palm, which means that she "will know the strange and the unknown," sets out to meet Welles's invaders whom she believes are from Venus, not Mars.
While Hamilton continued to expand her canon of fictional works, she also began penning several works of historical nonfiction for young readers. For example, she chronicles the history of American slavery in both Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave (1988) and Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (1993). In Anthony Burns, she relates the true story of an escaped slave who was captured and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act. The trial triggered riots and ended with Burns's return to his former owner. Hamilton based her account on court records, newspaper reports, biographies, and other primary sources. Based on information found in nineteenth-century archives and oral histories, Many Thousand Gone contains biographical profiles of celebrated and obscure individuals that reveal their personal experiences with slavery. The stories included provide insight on slavery in America from the early 1600s to its abolishment in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Throughout the 1990s, Hamilton continued to author works dealing with folklore and strong female characters. In Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales (1995), Hamilton retells and adapts legends and myths featuring African American women and girls, a wide range of stories that deal with animals, fairy tales, the supernatural, and true experiences, which were passed down through oral history. In addition to her folktales focusing on human characters, Hamilton also published several animal-centric collections of folklore, such as Jaguarundi (1995), When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing: The Adventures of Bruh Sparrow, Sis Wren, and Their Friends (1996), and A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa (1997). Alongside her folktales and more fantastic juvenile novels, Hamilton also authored several realistic novels set in contemporary times, among them Cousins (1990), Second Cousins (1998), and Bluish (1999). Cousins tells the story of Cammy and Patty Ann, two cousins who begin feuding one summer at day camp, while the sequel recounts what happens when a family reunion brings two sophisticated New York cousins into Cammy and Patty Ann's lives. Bluish follows the efforts of the new girl at a Manhattan magnet school, ten-year-old Dreenie, to make friends. She eventually bonds with Natalie, a young classmate who has leukemia. Hamilton's final novel, Time Pieces: The Book of Times (2002), was completed shortly before the author succumbed to breast cancer. Published posthumously, it is semiautobiographical and weaves together many of Hamilton's childhood experiences. Following the release of Time Pieces, several of Hamilton's works of folklore have been adapted into picture books, including Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl (2003), The People Could Fly: The Picture Book (2004), and Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale (2004).
Few modern children's authors have received as much critical recognition as Hamilton. Besides being a recipient of the Newbery Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the National Book Award, her works have been recognized by such diverse bodies as the Mystery Writers of America, the American Library Association, the Catholic Library Association, and the New York Times. Gregory Jerome Hampton and Wanda M. Brooks have suggested that Hamilton's widespread success may, in part, be the result of "her ability to constantly cross genre and subject, alter boundaries. Her genres of choice were often those infrequently selected by African America authors who write for young people." Additionally, scholars have consistently praised Hamilton as a champion of preserving and revitalizing traditional African American folk culture. Naomi Wood has lauded Hamilton for striving to foster positive self-identities among her readers, stating that, "[a]dvocating neither separatism nor assimilation, Hamilton insists upon dignity, self-reliance, and family connection within the context of an urban environment." Critics have often commented on the complex narrative voice that Hamilton routinely employs, which utilizes internalized dialogues and varying perspectives to convey insights into her multi-facetted characters. However, some have occasionally faulted this device as confusing. In her review of Bluish, Emilie Coulter has described the novel as having "an edgy quality that may disconcert some readers until they find the rhythm. Bouncing back and forth between Dreenie's first person journal entries and a third person narrative, the motion is a little unsettling."
Zeely [illustrations by Symeon Shimin] (young adult novel) 1967
The House of Dies Drear [illustrations by Eros Keith] (young adult novel) 1968
The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu [illustrations by Nonny Hogrogian] (folktales) 1969
The Planet of Junior Brown (young adult novel) 1971
W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (juvenile biography) 1972
Time-Ago Lost: More Tales of Jahdu [illustrations by Ray Prather] (folktales) 1973
M. C. Higgins, the Great (young adult novel) 1974
Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man (juvenile biography) 1974
Arilla Sun Down (young adult novel) 1976
Justice and Her Brothers (young adult novel) 1978
Dustland (young adult novel) 1980
Jahdu [pictures by Jerry Pinkney] (young adult novel) 1980
The Gathering (young adult novel) 1981
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (young adult novel) 1982
The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (young adult novel) 1983
Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (young adult novel) 1983
A Little Love (young adult novel) 1984
Junius over Far (young adult novel) (young adult novel) 1985
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (folktales) 1985
The Mystery of Drear House: The Conclusion of the Dies Drear Chronicle (young adult novel) 1987
A White Romance (young adult novel) 1987
Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave (young adult novel) 1988
In the Beginning: Creation Stories from around the World [illustrations by Barry Moser] (folktales) 1988
The Bells of Christmas [illustrations by Lambert Davis] (picture book) 1989
Cousins (young adult novel) 1990
The Dark Way: Stories from the Spirit World [illustrations by Lambert Davis] (folktales) 1990
The All Jahdu Storybook [illustrations by Barry Moser] (folktales) 1991
Drylongso [illustrations by Jerry Pinkney] (picture book) 1992
Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (juvenile biographies) 1993
Plain City (young adult novel) 1993
Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (folktales) 1995
Jaguarundi [illustrations by Floyd Cooper] (young adult novel) 1995
When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing: The Adventures of Bruh Sparrow, Sis Wren, and Their Friends [illustrations by Barry Moser] (folktales) 1996
A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa [illustrations by Barry Moser] (folktales) 1997
Second Cousins (young adult novel) 1998
Bluish (young adult novel) 1999
The Girl Who Spun Gold [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (picture book) 2000
Time Pieces: The Book of Times (young adult novel) 2002
Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl [illustrations by James Ransome] (picture book) 2003
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book [illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon] (picture book) 2004
Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale [illustrations by Barry Moser] (picture book) 2004
Virginia Hamilton (essay date June 1987)
SOURCE: Hamilton, Virginia. "The Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined: Celebrating Afro-American Folktales." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 2 (June 1987): 67-75.
[In the following essay, Hamilton discusses how her works of children's literature attempt to capture the strength, culture, and history evoked by African-American folktales.]
For all of my professional life I have been concerned with language—how it sounds and how it seems—and writing and literature. Each one of my twenty books has presented aspects of story, style, and language from the perspective of a parallel American culture. It has been my desire to create for young people original and startling images of themselves and to celebrate who they are in unique and positive ways through the story lines.1
Way back when, before I knew what language was, apparently I had a special affinity for it. I am told that I did not talk much as a child. I preferred to listen. But I would sing at the drop of a hat. By the age of four or five, I was a performer with a singing voice I'm told, to make a mama and a papa proud. Mine was a sweet, high and pure voice, so they say, the kind made for church socials and visiting bishop Sundays. On the occasion of some delicious, Methodist moonlight picnic, I was lifted to the outdoor platform on the riverbank. Whereupon, sparkling in a gauzy pink number, I would first curtsy to perfection; then, my unmiked voice would sail out over the moonlit, beaming, upturned faces of the congregation.
I memorized all manner of songs without protest: "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," "The B-I-B-L-E," "Down by the Riverside," and popular fare of the day most gratefully. For my secret was that I adored the new velvet or taffeta ruffled dresses my mama managed to buy for me for each performance. There's nothing I wouldn't have done for those beauties.
One time, I made the startling discovery that songs were actually words put to music. That struck me as extraordinary. For the first time, I had separated music from lyric. And it was just about then that I also separated elements of myself. My very first memory of my speaking words out loud without song has to do with seeing my own reflection in a mirror. Not realizing at first what I was seeing, I said, "Oh, she is so sad." Mama, who I could see to the side reflected in the mirror, laughed and said, "Virginia, that little girl is you." And I remember saying to Mama, "No, she's not." I think at that moment the "I" of me became one self and the "she" of me another aspect. Then, perhaps was born "I" the writer and "she" the character. "I" was not sad, "she" was. "She" was not me, "I" was.
This must sound odd to you. But reason that it may not be odd, not for a child like myself, who was surrounded by folks who communicated much of the time through tale-telling. They would take on the personalities of various relatives when necessary, and the character of the preacher, of course, or the presiding elder, and perfect strangers, animals, as well, and the wind and rain, even the sky, and snowflakes. It becomes understandable how easily I could identify character within myself at an early age.
It follows that the two most popular of my books would be tale-telling types steeped in the "folk" as it were. One of them, The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, is an ode to and a celebration of parallel cultural mythology and traditions. Pretty Pearl expresses my desire always to experiment and to challenge myself. Its genre is the blending of folklore, historical fact, and imagination to produce fantasy elements in terms of American black experience.
The god-child, Pretty Pearl, comes down from Mount Highness, home of the gods, in the eighteenth century to aid humans captured as slaves. Once involved in human culture, Pretty Pearl forgets the godly rules of her brother, the best god, John de Conquer, and finds herself in serious trouble. I won't go into the complexity of The Magical Adventures here. But I find reading it out loud to young people a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The book is a vehicle through the parallel culture and as such, is a pleasurable ride.
My most recent work is The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, told by me and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. In it I found myself taken back beyond my own family generations of tale-telling to a folk time when animals talked and the people could fly.
Today, we understand the power of literacy and the failure of illiteracy. There was a time, of course, of the nonliterate who, when they found themselves in this country, were promptly denied their very language and words. I speak of it now and I write about it because all times, whether divided or not, are times of our America. They are shared by all of us and need to be remembered and understood by us all.
The black folktales are uniquely southern. Many of you have known some of them all of your lives. As a northerner, I felt privileged to have got my hands on them. As a writer and a tale-teller, as a woman whose grandfather was a fugitive, my vital history, a part of it, also lives within some of the tales. The folktales bind us one to another in many good and important ways.
Those people without a country and a language were forced here to speak what seemed to them a foreign language, but which they were forbidden to read and to write. Despite this, they were able to create orally through speech and song, a body of composition, rhyme, and spoken literature that has lasted them and us to the present. I speak about the black tellers and their sayings from the Plantation Era. And I want to demonstrate for you how this folk material can be used by us today. Through the tales, the folk of the Plantation Era were able to perpetuate the parallel culture that was largely denied them while they lived. So let us begin from the beginning.
"Tell me a tell," they said. "Tell what it was like when you were my size." "Tell that one about grandpaw and what he done." The age-old request first spoken at Grandma's knee, perhaps. Tell me. Speak it. Make images and pictures and sights and sounds out of thin air, out of mere words, using only the voice. That is what tell me a tell truly means.
In the beginning was the word. Through words, we learn and know about ourselves. Literature, which is the composition and production of words in prose form, gives us images to think with. These images are composed by means of a creative process whose elements can be thought of as the Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined. The Known is all the verifiable facts concerning a subject matter. The documentation. The Remembered is everything that recollection and memory bring to bear on a subject; and the Imagined is all that the imagination can create to develop a subject. These are the three significant elements of writing which I use each day in order to make my own literary efforts come alive in seeming—that is, reading, and in sounding, which is telling.
Wherever there are people there is language, and wherever we live together, we use language to tell stories. Each of us is a story teller. We all have had experience in telling—gossip. "He told me that she…." "Yeah, but did you hear what she said about…." "Then, I said I wouldn't be caught dead…." "That's not what I heard!" And so on.
The delicious story of our lives told in daily episodes. Gossip. Think of the soap opera as a simplistic form of gossip. Some of us are better gossipers than others. We listen to it and retell it. We delight in it. We are all tale tellers.
It has been said that when gossip grows and becomes large enough to transcend its time and place, when it is handed down from one time and place to another, when it is changed and polished, it then becomes the folktale. As this new gossip is spoken about god or gods, it is likely to become, before it becomes religion, myth. And when it is told about the strange, the odd and unnatural phenomenon of life, it may well be called the fairy tale. Last, when gossip attempts to get to the bottom, to the essence of things and tries to concentrate our experience, it will make memorable language, it will make memorable words. It has at last become poetry and literature.
I am a tale-teller, a storyteller who writes her stories down. But my ability grew from a similar source, that of family gossip which took the form many times of what I call the "near folktale." The near folktale can be thought of as family history parcelled into segments, embellished by straight out-and-out lying, truths, and half-truths, and polished over time from one time to another into a kind of true folk telling composed of the elements mentioned before, of the Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined.
My own family history is a tale of my grandfather Levi Perry escaping, crossing the Ohio River, and coming up through southern Ohio—from who knows where?—to the abolitionist John Rankin's house in Ripley, Ohio, along the Underground Railroad system to Jamestown, Ohio, and ultimately, to my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Five generations of my family have lived in Yellow Springs. Levi Perry was accompanied by his mother, name unknown, who having delivered him to friends in Jamestown, promptly disappeared forever. It has taken me twenty to thirty years to gather this basic tale of my own history. And it is still largely a tale. Actually, there are as many variations on the tale as there are days of the week. Levi Perry kept his own counsel. I assume his mother's name was never spoken. They, the fugitives, were so used to secrecy, that secrecy became a form of storytelling in itself. Once a year, Levi Perry set his children down, all ten of them, saying, "Listen, children, and I will tell you why I ran." Told to me by my mother when she was in her eighties. She is now "going on" she likes to say, ninety-four.
But trying even now to get family members to tell the tale of Levi Perry's life has to it elements of mystery, myth, and folklore and of the Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined. Yet, I believe it is from these tales that I became a student of American folklore in general and a collector of American black folktales in particular. The result of my studies and research and my collecting is the volume entitled The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. There are twenty-four tales of all kinds in this collection.
Those former Africans brought here had no power and no weapons. Therefore, they used the folklore they created here to comment on their lives of servi- tude, to give them comfort and solace and strength through hard times. Some of these folktales are absolutely unique in the entire American folktale genre. The animal tales show the slave adopting various animals in the stories to represent personalities on the plantation. It was not unusual for the lowly and powerless rabbit to represent the slave in many of the tales. Rabbit was small and weak but he had big eyes, he could see all around, he could run very fast. Sometimes it looked like he might be actually flying as he ran. Rabbit was clever enough not to get caught in a snare. So the slave called him Brother. He was Bruh Rabbit and he knew how to do what had to get done, so the tale goes.
In the black folktale genre there is persistent mention of flying people as well as talking animals. When I first thought about collecting the tales in book form, I knew that the centerpiece for the book would be the most profound folktale of all, the one I've titled "The People Could Fly," and the title of the book. But what about the references to talking animals? Where did the idea come from to have the animals speak and seem to have familiar, human characteristics? I believe using animals as human personalities was a disguise, a way for slaves to shield their thoughts from those who had the power of life and death over them. Still there is more to it, something told me, and I wondered why it was that so many slaves believed in a time when animals talked, as did many American Indian peoples.
It occurred to me that there was no easy way for these tales to have developed over time. There was no safe place or condition under which the folk could sit down and simply tell stories. So how did the tales develop, where and when? The answers to such questions are shrouded in the mysteries of the past. We know so much about the plantation era, but little is known about the process by which these tales became very sophisticated tellings. I have imagined how this might have occurred. It is through imagination that often I can piece together what might have been known at a particular time. Using all the facts, the resources that I can bring to bear on a subject, I can speculate and come up with reasonable explanations.
The classic southern plantations of the 1800s were often surrounded by dense forests, through which to some distance were a few good roads built by the workers. In the hot, humid months of summer, the owner and his family and house servants left the plantation along the roads and set up life in the summer homes built in the coolness of the forest. Plantation slaves who were not servants stayed on the plantation during these months, working as usual, but doing less work now, since planting time was over and harvest time had not yet begun. They were forbidden to enter the forest, forbidden to gather in groups larger than five people. Almost everything save work was forbidden them.
But they did gather together under cover of darkness and in secret to pass along news, about what was going on in the forest or even what was beyond the forest. They met to discuss, to gossip about what was happening with the Overseer and the Driver and all others who were left in power over them while Master and Mistress were away in the forest. Under cover of darkness, they too, had found a place. The dark trees became their friends, and one by one, they would slip away from the cabin road to meet and to talk where it was absolutely forbidden for them to be. Never would they dare murmur or even think their own names. They were invisible and safe therefrom.
And they would ask of one another in their tale-telling voices, their false voices, "That you, Possum?"
"Yay," Old Possum would answer.
And, "That you, Sis Goose?"
"Ayay, Ayay, hits me. And you, Bruh Bear?"
"Yayo, it's me, it's me."
And on around in the dark. "That you, Bruh Rabbit?" A voice would ask.
"Nobody else but," says the Rabbit.
"What you got to tell us tonight?" asks Bruh Deer.
Bruh Rabbit thinks he recognizes the false voice of deer: "That you, Deer?"
"Aye, me, and Allugatah right by me."
"Well," the Rabbit says. "I come to tell you a tell. It my dream, call it war or free-dom."
"Well, which?" Allagatuh asks.
"Don't know somethin about which," Bruh Rabbit says, "I just got to tell."
"Wait," Sis goose says. "First, we not all here. Where be Bruh Fox? We ain't heard him say good evenin' just yet."
"Bruh Fox," Old Possum says, way low in his throat, "he gone."
"He gone?" In unison they ask.
"Yay, fox done flew the coop. He done run the run. He fly over the forest high as you can go. Fox gone and gone the long, long gone."
"Ayay. Ayay." So they said.
Therefore, I imagine that this then began the time the animals talked. It could have happened. It is a good explanation of the way the slaves disguised themselves even from themselves, taking on the names of animals to protect their identities. It is a good explanation of why the animal tales seem so right and so perfectly developed.
However, the animal tales are only a part of the main body of black folktales. There are hundreds of tales, not only of animals but of supernatural beings, slave tales of freedom, real tales and imaginary tales of freedom, of which "The People Could Fly" is a good example. There are fantasy tales of freedom, and tales of the real, extravagant, and fanciful. In short, the black folktale expresses the full imagination of an ethnic group of wide-ranging historical experience and culture.
The tales were first recorded in the late nineteenth century. In 1880, journalist Joel Chandler Harris collected some of the oral literature of slaves in a volume entitled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Many American's exposure to the tales came through the character of elderly Uncle Remus, the slave who had a favored position on the old plantation. Harris' Uncle Remus told animal tales in fractured English to the little white boy of the plantation house. But author Harris was not concerned with reproducing exactly the tales or their language. He and his contemporaries in the 1880s used phonetic dialect as a literary device. They felt that an exaggerated colloquial language best symbolized what they regarded as the quaint appeal of lowly, rural people.
Thus some of the tales recorded by early collectors are much more difficult to read than the narratives in the form of letters and petitions that some slaves managed to write themselves. But gradually, collectors attempted to express the tales in a more realistic, readable fashion. When Black English, such as Gullah (Angola English), was used, a glossary was added.
The tales in the collection, The People Could Fly, are in four sections representing the main body of black folktales. I used a reasonably colloquial language or dialect, depending on the folktale. Moderate colloquialisms are understandable and readable. They reflect the expressiveness of the original slave teller and later the free black storyteller.
One of my main concerns in presenting the tales was to have them sound and seem equally well. As you know, that is not so easily done. Something that reads well may sound very different when spoken. So I devised a "voice" or a essayist/narrator for each tale. He or she would be unobtrusive, not a character in the true sense, but vaguely just a voice with a sense of personality to it that would set the mood of each story. In that way, I was able to have the speech or the sound match the subject matter more closely. Anyone reading the tales aloud could take on the voices of the tellers with very little trouble and still speak true to the tale. Reading tales from The People Could Fly out loud gives one a good idea about how they sound and how they seem. Also this demonstrates the wonderful variety and sensibility of the tales.
Most of the tales were collected in the thirties by collectors in the employ of the Works Progress Administration state projects by which the art, music, and folklore of America were gathered from actual informants. All of the tales were collected in the south, some by folklore society collectors. I wanted to make a tantalizing book to read, and enjoyable to read "out loud." Moreover, I have attempted to save for our children and ourselves, something of value from our folktale telling past. To forget our past is to no longer remember the word; it is to lose the sense of ourselves that we must have in order to progress.
I wanted to bring to you with this book that feeling for language that the fine tale tellers of old had who devised these wonderful tales out of the good and bad experiences of their lives. Black folktales I believe allow us to share in the known, the remembered, and the imagined together as Americans sharing the same history.
I read out loud to grown-ups across the country. Reading aloud to an audience of any age—from preschool through high school and on through adulthood—simply proves how powerful is the story, how marvelous the tale sounds and seems.
I believe in the preservation of this very special literature in our schools, in colleges and libraries, for coming generations of Americans. I believe in all of us as resources for tale-telling from our own ethnic backgrounds and in our sharing one another's resources, in the sharing of the telling style. Imaginative use of language and ideals illuminate for us a human condition. And we are reminded then again to care who we Americans are—in this instance, who are these black people who first told these tales, where did they come from, how did they dream, how did they hunger? We are then reminded to value what we have and to know always what we want.
So tell the tell, no matter what age the teller or the listener. Tell us about one time, about wanderers and kings, all of us. Once a time, a wanderer came upon a house in the woods. In the house lived a man and his beautiful daughter. The wanderer fell in love with the daughter the moment he saw her and asked the father for her hand in marriage.
"You may marry my daughter," said the father, "as soon as you build me a castle in the air."
Nodding, the wanderer smiled and said, "I'll build you a castle in the air as soon as you, lay the foundation."
How the folktales sound and how they seem imply the listener and the reader. From teller to listener, from writer to reader is the call and the response, the unbroken circle of communication. One half is lessened without the other half. The writer, the teller may imagine, but the reader and listener must imagine as well. We all contribute to the construction out of mere words, the castle in the air. We are all together, therefore. That is what language does for us. It tells us. We are not alone.
1. This paper is adapted from the author's remarks at the annual conference entitled "MultiCultural Perspectives in Writing and Literature," sponsored by the Departments of English and Curriculum and Instruction, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Virginia Hamilton and Susan Stan (essay date March-April 1989)
SOURCE: Hamilton, Virginia, and Susan Stan. "Conversations: Virginia Hamilton." Five Owls 3, no. 4 (March-April 1989): 54-5.
[In the following essay, Hamilton discusses the intent and composition of her In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World.]
Since the publication of her first book, Zeely, in 1967, Virginia Hamilton's extraordinary and varied work has challenged young readers. Hamilton's realistic novels are marked by characters, settings, and plots that are often offbeat and always memorable. M. C. Higgins, the Great and The Planet of Junior Brown, popular with children and critics, are two examples. In addition, Hamilton has offered readers science fiction (the Justice trilogy), mystery (The House of Dies Drear ), and a ghost story of sorts (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush ). Her nonfiction books include several biographies (among them the recent Anthony Burns ), a significant collection of folklore (The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales ), and, of course, In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, which was named a 1988 Newbery Honor Book.
This is the third of her books to attain that particular honor, and she has also won the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the Ohioana Book Award. Throughout her body of work runs a lifelong interest in folklore, mythology, black culture and history, and American Indian culture and history.
In the Beginning was written in response to a suggestion from Hamilton's publisher. "It seemed that it was in my head—something that I wanted to do but hadn't really formalized—and it gave me the opportunity to work on some studies that I was really interested in." In Zeely, Hamilton had invented the creation tale that Zeely tells Geeder. "‘In the beginning,’ Zeely said, ‘there were only a handful of people in each corner of the world.’" Hamilton comments now: "It's very strange to me that twenty some years later I should do a book on creation tales."
"The most striking purpose of a creation myth," Hamilton states in an introductory note to the book, "is to explain something. Yet it also asks questions and gives reasons why groups of people perform certain rituals and live a particular way. Creation myths describe a place and a time impossible for us to see for ourselves. People everywhere have creation myths, revealing how they view themselves to themselves in ways that are movingly personal."
Hamilton grew up on a farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio, and was part of a close-knit extended family on her mother's side. Even now, Hamilton and her husband, Arnold Adoff, divide their time between Ohio and New York City. During the time she was working on this book, Hamilton was a visiting professor at Queens College in New York. She went to many different libraries and spent time at the Forty-First Street Branch of the New York Public Library; she did additional research when she was in Ohio.
"I looked at hundreds of sources," she says. "I ended up playing one source off against another, one resource off against another. I went to the Museum of Natural History and looked at the Egyptian Book of the Dead for the Ra story. My problem was that I was working many times from translations into English. What I was trying to do was to feel what it must have sounded like in the native language, and I wanted to get some flavor of that into the story."
Once Hamilton decided which myths she would be including in the book, she had to rewrite, or retell, them. "I call it recasting," she explains. "None of these myths is made for children—they are simply the mythologies of people. Some of these tales are long, long epics, and they had to be cut for children. They also had to be recast in terms that young people would understand without damaging the mythology. Sometimes it was rather difficult. The Babylonian myth was particularly difficult, and the Guatemalan one, in that respect. I thought they were so important that I really worked very hard on trying to make them understandable. They are probably the two most difficult myths in the book because the translations are so difficult, and so wildly interpreted—no two are alike—so I just used my judgment in hoping I could make them somewhat clear for young people."
The assumption underlying her book, Hamilton notes, is that people the world over have thought in much the same way. "Sometimes we are very narrow in our view in Western civilization," she explains. "I included our Biblical creation stories, but I also wanted to show creation stories from the same part of the world that come from the same sources—Middle Eastern and such. The world is very wide, and yet the thinking of humanity is much the same. We're never able to get out of our egocentric predicament, which is the fact that we can't get outside of our head. Every people reaches out and imagines an existence beyond themselves. That existence you find formulated in a creation story, whether it's a god, or gods, or people, or universes. It's something out of the mind of the people who were creating it. And in the end, when you finish, you realize that these tales were all created by humanity, and that's the genius of them."
As part of the process of working on this book, Hamilton tried to imagine herself as one of the people who lived at the time the myth was taken as truth. She was drawn to the story of the god Ra, represented on the book's jacket. "I really felt the temple rituals that would be going on as this myth—of course, at the time it wasn't a myth, it was their religion—was being carried on in the temple. It was a yearly ritual in praise of the god. I could project myself into that position, the spirit of it. I found the beliefs of the people, once I tried to project myself into the time, quite understandable. It doesn't seem like idolatry if you remove yourself from our Western milieu. They seem to be what the people of the time would have believed."
Hamilton is known for working on two books simultaneously, and there was a period when work on In the Beginning overlapped with work on Anthony Burns, the biography of a fugitive slave published in 1988 by Knopf. This year she is back in Ohio as visiting professor at Ohio State, where she continues to write and teaches the writer's craft to Ph.D. students. There are "lots of things to come," Hamilton promises, and she looks forward to the publication of "an Ohio Christmas book" that will be out this fall. So do we.
Anita Moss (essay date winter 1992)
SOURCE: Moss, Anita. "Gothic and Grotesque Effects in Virginia Hamilton's Gothic Fiction." ALAN Review 19, no. 2 (winter 1992): 16-20.
[In the following essay, Moss explores Hamilton's use of gothic conventions in her adolescent fiction, most notably, in her Drear series, The Planet of Junior Brown, and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush.]
At the 1983 Conference of the Children's Literature Association at the University of Alberta, Virginia Hamilton participated in a discussion of her novels and acknowledged that William Faulkner's fiction had been a major influence upon her own. One of the important ways that Faulkner has had an impact on many twentieth-century American writers has been through his masterful and complex use of Gothic conventions. In this essay I intend to explore Hamilton's uses of Gothic and Grotesque conventions and effects, especially as these traditions have come to her through American Gothic, a line which leads back to such eighteenth-century British writers as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and others, and later perpetuated and refined by such nineteenth-century British writers as the Brontës and Charles Dickens and in America by George Branch Cabell and Edgar Allan Poe.
In his classic work, Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler describes the "naturalization" of Gothicism in American fiction of which Faulkner's novels have been the most distinguished examples. Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty have followed Faulkner's example by using the Gothic mode to explore psychological and moral horror. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man uses surrealistic effects and Gothic images—dream, nightmare, etc.—to depict the complexities of minority experience. Most recently, the African-American writer, Toni Morrison, has made brilliant use of Gothic and Grotesque effects as she attempts to express the virtually unspeakable stories of black women in her novel Beloved (1987). In Virginia Hamilton's novels, too, the Gothic mode has been an abiding feature whose conventions have enabled her to tell stories of intense psychological power and moral complexity.
Gothicism and the Drear Books
Hamilton's most explicit venture into Gothicism occurs in The House of Dies Drear (1968) and its sequel written almost twenty years later, The Mystery of Drear House (1987). The earlier novel is gloriously imbued with specific Gothic effects. As the action in early Gothic romances occurred in deserted castles filled with ghosts and tortured spirits from dungeon to attic, so the central image in both of the Dies Drear novels is the house of a famous abolitionist, an important station in the Underground Railroad, and hence inhabited by its own anguished ghosts. Spaces within and without Drear House resonate with supernatural possibilities. Dreams, surrealistic qualities, and fantastic images abound in both novels. Drear House is likewise a maze of mysterious spaces, tunnels, hidden passages, recesses, and surprising connections.
The opening paragraph of The House of Dies Drear describes a strange dream of Thomas Small, the central character of both novels. Though Thomas walks a familiar path in the dream, he experiences a dreadful sense of claustrophobia as evergreen trees appear to become gigantic and threaten to engulf him. In this frightening dream Thomas encounters a white-haired, satanic old man, whose "eyes glowed red and then spewed fire" up. 2). The reader knows, however, that such a dream may represent some sinister foreboding that the move from North Carolina to Drear House in Ohio may not be fortuitous.
As Thomas's father, Mr. Small, begins to describe the house, both Thomas and the reader feel more and more uneasy about this remote, big, pre-Civil War house, with its hidden rooms and lost plans. Hamilton repeatedly stresses the secrecy, strangeness, remoteness, and potentially supernatural qualities of Drear House. It is an absolutely central metaphor in both novels, and it is for Thomas a way to make connections with his cultural past. His experience in Drear House helps Thomas to imagine what it really meant that "between 1810 and 1850, forty thousand of them [fleeing slaves] had passed through Ohio" up. 10).
Weather usually plays a prominent role in establishing an atmosphere of dread in Gothic novels. Likewise, the Small family arrives at their new home amid "a gloom of mist and heavy rain" up. 25). The house itself seems to share these atmospheric conditions:
The House of Dies Drear loomed out of mist and murky sky, not only gray and formless, but huge and unnatural. It seemed to crouch on the side of hill high above the highway. And it had a dark, isolated look about it that set it at odds with all that was living.
No wonder Thomas realizes at once that his new home is haunted. The house of Dies Drear sits broodingly within a heavily Gothic landscape: a muddy stream gushing near the house looks to Thomas as if it is bleeding; trees near the house are "bare and twisted by wind" up. 27). Also Thomas immediately associates the house with a castle, drawbridge, moat, war, and a king. All of this strikes him as sinister and alienating: "the hill and house were bitten and frozen. They were separated from the rest of the land by something unkind" up. 29). Thomas also realizes that, like all Gothic houses, this one harbors secrets.
Thomas's fearful musings focus finally upon the eccentric Mr. Pluto, the same old man who had figured prominently in his initial dream. Called "Mr. Pluto" because he lives underground, this character remains terrifying both to Thomas and to the reader for more than half the novel. Thomas is certain that Mr. Pluto is giving the Small family warnings to flee. His suspicions about Mr. Pluto's nature are strengthened by local superstitions; many families in the community not only believe that Drear House is haunted; they also think that Mr. Pluto is a cohort of the Devil. Ultimately, Thomas's intuitions about Mr. Pluto are wrong. The boy's reading of Gothic romances has caused him to misread both Mr. Pluto and Drear House.
The house does indeed possess a hidden underground chamber, a natural cave made eerie with fabulous stalactites and stalagmites, and Mr. Pluto is the keeper of Dies Drear's secrets. But the secret revealed finally is not a Gothic horror—but a treasure. Before the Small family shares Mr. Pluto's secret, however, Thomas must endure an initiation into the house. When he accidently falls into a secret tunnel under the front steps, Thomas begins to feel the heaviness of the house: "The idea of the whole three-story house of Dies Drear pressing down on him caused him to stop a moment on the path" up. 47). Yet these lost, dark, cramped, and bewildered moments in the tunnel in which he believes he hears cries of despair enable him to imagine the true condition of the many slaves who had hidden there before him.
In experiencing the isolation and alienation from community, the secret signs, nightmares, and darkness of Drear House, Thomas begins to understand at the deepest human level the abstract facts he had read in the historical account of the House of Dies Drear. While the power of the past is often expressed through Gothic ghosts as a destructive force impelling characters in Gothic romance towards irrevocable disaster, Hamilton uses these conventions for very different purposes in The House of Dies Drear. Her Gothic narrative suggests that, for African-Americans, the confrontation with their collective cultural past is almost intolerably painful but also essential in order to face the future and grow. To be sure, Mr. Small and Thomas discover terrible secrets—murder, revenge, greed, obsession—but they also discover the treasures of their own cultural past which help to heal the pain and reconcile breaches between neighbors and within families. Like so many of Hamilton's fine novels, this one powerfully affirms the values of the African-American family and community symbolized in the church, which, as Thomas discovers, has played such a profound role in the road to freedom for his people.
Many scholars have noted that Gothic novels in America have often shown the disintegration and decay of cultural identity (Faulkner's Sanctuary, Absalom, Absalom!, and The Sound and the Fury are notable examples); Hamilton, however, uses similar narrative strategies for very different purposes. Her novel does not end with a burning house or a howling idiot but with her young protagonist's father happily recording treasure upon treasure. Thomas' father is not a mad Gothic villain, greedy for treasure, power, and forbidden pleasures of the flesh, but a humane scholar who teaches his son and other members of his community that cultural treasures are to be shared, not hoarded. Nor is Mr. Pluto a Gothic villain but a keeper of stories, secrets, and treasures. In 1970 when this novel was published, Hamilton held up a luminous and hopeful vision for young readers who must have wondered if they could survive the present at all, much less explore the painful secrets of the past and brave the uncertainties of the future.
Gothicism in Junior Brown and Sweet Whispers
While Hamilton employs Gothic conventions in her two novels about Drear House essentially to explore and reveal cultural identity, she also uses them to express intense tensions within families and painful psychological realities in The Planet of Junior Brown (1971) and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982). Neither of these novels contains such explicit features of Gothicism as the Drear House books; rather the Gothic conventions in these novels are what literary historians have sometimes called the "Grotesque." Alfred Appel writes in A Season of Dreams:
The Grotesque is characterized by a distortion of the external world, by the description of human begins in nonhuman terms, and by the displacement we associate with dreams…. The Grotesque is heightened realism, reminiscent of caricature, but going beyond it to create a fantastic realism or a realistic fantasy that evokes pathos and terror.
Another distinguishing characteristic of this kind of "New American Gothic" is its use of enclosures and a claustrophobic sense of space. Irving Malin writes in New American Gothic that this kind of fiction often features an "other room" or a "final door through which ghost-like forces march." This final room, according to Malin, is the coffin, or analogous thereof—tightly constrained spaces where growth, freedom, and identity are impossible to achieve. One of Hamilton's most potent uses of Gothic technique is in her treatment of space as a metaphor for oppression and imprisonment as well as a possible source of creative inspiration—secret, hidden, sheltered places where characters may somehow grow despite the constraints.
In both The Planet of Junior Brown and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush Hamilton uses images of confinement and enclosure, as well as images of creative, sheltered space (see Gilbert and Gubor). Tomblike spatial metaphors in these two novels are also closely associated with illness, madness, and creative art. The spatial metaphors function symbolically within the novels themselves and also offer some provocative insights into the writer's sense of identity.
In The Planet of Junior Brown Mr. Pool's hidden basement room is the location not only where creation takes place but also where Mr. Pool and Buddy imagine whole new spheres of being and knowing. Mr. Pool senses in Buddy Clark "a whole new being lying wait" up. 20). Homeless, Buddy Clark has learned to take care not only of himself but of others as well. He escapes his homelessness and sense of isolation by caring for younger boys in the dilapidated basements of abandoned buildings. Buddy calls this network of shelters his "planets," and he teaches the boys to take care of themselves, to survive in a hostile world. These underground homes provide food, shelter, companionship, and even new names for the boys. In his homeless condition, Buddy Clark has evaded the institutions of an oppressive culture. He and the boys whom he shelters have chosen to live underground in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Like the characters of Dostoyevsky and Richard Wright who choose to live underground, Hamilton's Buddy and his "planets" have chosen to live outside society and in a sense beyond it. Though Hamilton does not idealize this existence, she suggests that it is preferable to the mad or diseased spaces in which Junior Brown is imprisoned.
Junior Brown lives with his asthmatic mother in a comfortable and beautifully kept apartment. Junior's father, the reader is told, lives in Jersey. Junior hopes his father will visit, a wish that never comes true. Clearly Junella Brown has imprisoned her son and herself in their nice home. Though she professes to be proud of Junior's musical talent, she nevertheless deprives the boy of his art. Junior must practice on a piano whose wires have been detached. Junior is a prisoner in a house where his desire to create is repressed and killed. The hammers silently strike the air. Junior is silenced in a tightly constrained space.
When Junella suffers an asthma attack, Junior must care for her. Afterwards as his mother sleeps in exhaustion, Junior paints. His rage finds expression on the canvas. Before he paints, Junior feels "red" under his skin. He dances exuberantly. He contemplates Buddy Clark's freedom and resents it. Noise and redness burst within him. Both external and internal space for Buddy are intolerable.
To relieve his inner struggles, Junior fills the empty spaces on his canvas to create "The Red Man." The Red Man contains other people; and Junior enacts on the canvas his fervent fantasies of freedom and escape: "He had everyone flowing free—Mr. Pool and his daddy and Buddy's daddy and games and buses and old people and trees" up. 138). Like Charlotte Gilman's female character of The Yellow Wall Paper who imagines that she sees a despairing woman trapped and creeping within the paper's pattern, Junior imagines his own mad double in The Red Man, with his dark red pulsing brain and his barely contained destructive energies. Hamilton makes it clear that this alter ego is essential to Junior Brown, the fat boy who imagines his own monstrosity and succeeds in making himself monstrous by devouring all the food in the house, as if to occupy all of the space in that tightly constrained and repressed home of illness and despair.
Junella herself both seeks confinement with her own illness and self-pity while trying to escape it. She admires Miss Peebs, Junior's music teacher, not only because she has been a famous concert pianist but because Miss Peebs' ancestors had never been slaves. She tells Junior that they should go downtown more often and not confine themselves so closely to the black community. They should not be such hermits, she says. Nevertheless, Junella continues not only to confine her son but to invade his inner space as well. As he walks with Buddy Clark, Junior can hear his mother's voice: "Junior's mother reached into Junior's mind and tried to take it over … up. 35). ‘Mama, why you always have to bust in on me?’" up. 36). Junior at least finds some respite on the bus, a neutral space where he can hide: "He could sit down. Hiding himself there in the rear of the bus, he could like anybody else of ordinary size" up. 41).
The other adult who profoundly affects Junior Brown is his piano teacher, Miss Peebs. Trapped in her parents' home, this gifted pianist has rejected her art. She has locked herself away with decaying books, dust, and piles of furniture. Like Junior, Miss Peebs also perceives a mad double, a filthy relative who has infected her claustrophobic home. Though Junior longs for the freedom of the ebony and ivory spaces of the piano, Miss Peebs has violently attacked the piano, a pathetic emblem of her self-hatred and rejection of her own art. Miss Peebs thus forces Junior to enact a pitiful caricature of his art by beating out his lesson on a chair. Saddest of all, she imprisons herself.
Readers can only speculate as to why these two women have confined themselves with their illnesses and madness. One can only guess that both characters are reacting to oppressive forces in their culture as well as in their own families. Mrs. Brown reacts to the apparent abandonment by her husband and to the cultural forces making such a situation necessary by enslaving and confining her son. Junior's vital creative self thus struggles for freedom, but Hamilton dramatizes how this vital self is encased in layers of fat and trapped by centuries of oppression. Miss Peebs has allowed her parents to determine her identity. Her apartment with its crumbling books and crowded paraphernalia from the past strongly resembles a tomb rather than a home. Junior, Miss Peebs, and Junella Brown each seem to be locked into dreadful isolation. Junior expresses his feeling of alienation poignantly, as he feels curiously shut out even as he is shut into the basement room with Buddy Clark and Mr. Pool: "Across the span of planets, Junior Brown thought, ‘Who am I? What can I know? It's Friday. Outside me, it might be Monday. Or nothing. Or something terrible’" up. 23).
Neither Miss Peebs, nor Junior and his mother appear in any way connected to a community. Buddy Clark, on the other hand, has learned to reach out to others and so free his creative self. Though he has no father or mother, he finds a parent substitute in his mentor, Mr. Pool. Buddy moreover has many "brothers"; yet he longs for one special brother—hence his attachment to Junior Brown. He is equally at home in the dark streets, running free and easy, or inhabiting his underground enclosures. His existence has given him inner strength and inner vision: "In the dark he had taught himself to see with his mind" up. 73).
Buddy is "Tomorrow Billy" to his "planets," and, as Mr. Pool has hinted and the name suggests, he may indeed be a new being who has learned that the old law of living only for oneself will no longer suffice. Lacking a family, the homeless boys must create their own families. As Buddy explains, "We are together because we have to learn to live for each other" up. 206).
When Junella Brown destroys Junior's "The Red Man," which she considers obscene, she has removed all of the space Junior had left. He must find a new space or explode from the inside with all the violence he had expressed on his canvas. Likewise Mr. Pool and the boys come close to losing their secret basement room and decide that their marvelous solar system must be dismantled. Junior's enormous bulk, the reader notes incredulously, is lowered into the basement with a pulley, a grotesque scene reminiscent of a similar scene in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Junior takes his filthy mad double with him into the basement; he has relieved Miss Peebs of her diseased and horrible relative at last. In his new home, however, Junior finds that he no longer needs the filthy alterego. As he rests in the closeness of his new family, comforted by the music of Buddy's resonant voice, he can no longer see the diseased relative.
Hamilton's ending in The Planet of Junior Brown is tough-minded to say the least. But she strongly suggests that being shut out by a society is to be shut into ourselves, our illness, and our madness. Only a true liberation can free us to discover ourselves, our independent spirits, and our creativity. Only in recognizing that the mad double is an evil thing we create out of our own rage and despair will enable us to dispel it.
In Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush Hamilton also gives her readers an intense apprehension of the central character's claustrophobic existence. In this powerful novel about child abuse and child abandonment, the central character Teresa, or "Tree," has been left by her mother, Vy, to care for her brother. Vy cannot tolerate her son's illness and mental retardation and leaves her two children quite literally imprisoned in an apartment. They share their aloneness and survive without their mother's presence. Tree must cook, clean, plan, and care for her childlike brother, Dabney. The reader meets Tree as she is beginning to mature. She hides her budding breasts as boys tease her. Meanwhile she has seen a "gorgeous dude" on the street and has fallen in love with him. It is important to the novel's structure that Tree is poised on the brink of womanhood. Before she can grow into maturity, she must retreat, even regress, to rediscover the sunny spaces of her own childhood, the house of her parents which contains its own terrifying secret in an attic room.
Teresa and Dabney have lived without parents and without any knowledge of their past. Their intensely enclosed apartment seems to be the beginning and end of their existences. Indeed Hamilton's novel may remind readers of Edgar Allan Poe's famous Gothic tale, "The Fall of the House of Usher." Madeline and Roderick Usher are closed within a Gothic house, doomed by a mysterious inherited disease, just as Dab is doomed by porphyria, the strange disease afflicting the male members of Vy's family. Like Roderick Usher, Dab is the last surviving male member of his family. Vy and Brother Rush had been unusually close and enclosed with illness, just as Tree and Dab are. We also learn that Brother Rush died in an accident on the day that all the ivy fell from the house, as if to symbolize that the best hope of the Rush family, and that the house itself had fallen, a detail strongly reminiscent of the eerily floating vines which cover the Usher house before it falls and disintegrates. Finally, the name "Rush" seems to be inspired by Poe's doomed Usher family. Tree, then, must retreat to a terrifying Gothic domain to learn how to live, while her brother must also return to the past to learn how to die.
In her study Archetypes of Women's Fiction, Annis Pratt has stressed the frequency with which female heroes in women's fiction are accompanied in their voyages of self-discovery by an ideal male guide, whom Pratt calls the Green World lover. Brother Rush seems to serve this role in Tree's quest for knowledge of her past. She clears her own sheltered space in the apartment—a tiny alcove with a table where she draws pictures of trees, open spaces, families—all of the things missing in her own life. As Junior Brown expresses his mad desires and exuberant vitality by painting, so Tree expresses her own deep needs and wishes in her drawings. Brother Rush, Tree's "Green World" guide, takes her back to childhood and allows her to complete the tragic story of her own past, a necessary if painful knowledge she must have in order to understand her brother and her mother.
Holding a gleaming sphere—a window to Tree's past—the ghost of Brother Rush appears at just the point when the household becomes more than Tree can handle. Traveling into the open spaces of her past, Tree discovers disturbing secrets: her father's abandonment of his family, inherited illness, and most terrifying of all, Vy's physical and mental abuse of her son. To her horror, Tree learns that Vy has often confined Dab, tied him up, and beaten him. Gradually Tree realizes she is trapped with a Dab who is becomingly more and more seriously ill. Inner and outer space become increasingly intolerable for Tree, a conflict which climaxes in the scene where she runs around the apartment in grief and madness after Dab's death. Tree receives one final glimpse of Brother Rush—as a decaying corpse riding away in his car with Dab, Hamilton's graphic way of assuring both Tree and the reader that both Dab and Brother Rush are dead, that Tree's place is yet among the living. Only twice does Tree feel a reassuring sense of community to alleviate her terrible sense of loss and alienation. As she rides in the sheltered space of Vy's car, she feels protected and cared for as the car moves through the dark streets, just as she had felt as a baby girl riding securely behind Brother Rush's protective shoulder. In the final scene of the novel Tree dines with Vy, her boyfriend Silversmith, and Silversmith's son Don, after Dabney's funeral. Though the ending seems a bit too happy and contrived, it represents the hope that both Vy and Tree may yet come to terms with their losses in the future.
In The Planet of Junior Brown and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, Hamilton's Gothic and Grotesque uses of space suggest that the characters' experiences in actual space are powerful emblems of drama enacted within psychic spaces. She also reveals that our most precious spaces—our homes and our very selves—may be invaded by destructive forces beyond our control. Whereas the Small family attempts to restore cultural treasures in The House of Dies Drear, the protagonist in M. C. Higgins, the Great experiences a terrifying claustrophobia as his Appalachian home is threatened by the destruction and pollution of strip mining. As in other American Gothic novels, M. C. Higgins, the Great depicts the disintegration of a cultural order in which people seem literally to be haunted by ghosts from the past, paralyzed by present conditions, and powerless to confront the future. Such a situation results in grotesque behavior: Mr. Killburn tries to heal the wounded mountain by laying his witchy hands upon the damaged earth; M. C. swings high on his forty-foot pole waving a burning mop as he fantasizes about his mother's future as a singer and plots to hunt the girl he has seen on the mountain; finally M. C., his father, and his friend use the tombstones of dead ancestors as a possible stay against the dangerous spoil heap which threatens to slide down the mountain.
But Hamilton's uses of confined spaces do not always suggest psychological or cultural disorder and disintegration. As we have seen, Buddy Clark in The Planet of Junior Brown and Tree in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush use encounters as havens for creative activity. According to Gaston Bachelard, such enclosures may not only serve as regressive retreats; they may also shelter dreams, imaginings, and the most significant creative work. Hamilton expresses this kind of "felicitous space" (Bachelard, pp. 30-31) in The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969):
Mama Luka liked to sit in her tight little room in a fine good place called Harlem. She liked to sit with the window blinds drawn against the sunlight. And Mama Luka did this every day.
Mama Luka's tight little room is not the "final room" of Gothic fiction. In this magical half-light she imagines the exuberant Jahdu—how he found his power, how he took care of trouble, how he finally became himself. In this good place Lee Edward listens as the stories shape themselves in the imaginations of both teller and listener. In darker expressions of the Gothic, the enclosed room is the place of nightmare and horror, such as the terrible room in which Vy beats and confines her small son, but such places may also shelter hopes in the direst circumstances. Survival for African-Americans has often required silence, secrecy, and concealment—going underground spiritually, emotionally, and even literally. In The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1983), Pearl, the god child, experiences the horrors of the worst possible nightmare space—the hold of a slave ship containing captured Africans. Later she finds shelter in the forest: "‘Oh, that is a hiding place,’ she told herself, ‘better than a rock or a cave. Who gone wander around in there? Robbers on the edge of it, I bet. But deep inside, I'll find me a find’" up. 43).
Indeed the forest serves as a symbol of home and self in The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. Like the forests in Gothic fiction, it is mysterious and terrifying, yet for African-Americans the forest yields good things—treasures in fact—and it was the hiding place for countless escaped slaves making their way North to freedom.
As we have seen, Hamilton has made imaginative use of explicit features of the Gothic and Grotesque tradition in her rich and varied body of young adult fiction. These techniques have allowed her to explore psychological and cultural dimensions of character which social realism does not usually allow for. While the characters examined in this discussion vividly inhabit Gothic spaces haunted by ghosts of the past, demons of the present, and imagined spectres of the future, characters in Hamilton's more recently published books have taken to the open road. Hence, the journey rather than the house serves as the central metaphor in A Little Love (1984) and Junius over Far (1985). Hamilton's work in any event reflects a remarkable blending of well-established traditions in American literature with African-American folklore and myth, just one of the reasons why she has created some of our most distinguished works of young adult literature.
Appel, Alfred. A Season of Dreams. Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. by Maria Jolas. Beacon Press, 1969.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Stein and Day, 1966.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. Yale University Press, 1979.
Hamilton, Virginia. The House of Dies Drear. Macmillan, 1970.
———. Junius over Far. Harper and Row, 1985.
———. A Little Love. Philomel Books, 1984.
———. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
———. M. C. Higgins, the Great. Macmillan, 1974.
———. The Mystery of Drear House. Macmillan, 1987.
———. The Planet of Junior Brown. Macmillan, 1971.
———. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. Philomel Books, 1982.
———. The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu. Macmillan, 1969.
Malin, Irving. New American Gothic. Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns of Women's Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1982.
Roberta Seelinger Trites (essay date spring 1998)
SOURCE: Trites, Roberta Seelinger. "‘I double never ever never lie to my chil'ren’: Inside People in Virginia Hamilton's Narratives." African American Review 32, no. 1 (spring 1998): 147-56.
[In the following essay, Trites examines the nature of "outsiders"—which she associates with childhood—in Hamilton's young adult novels, particularly with regard to how they interact with and evolve into "insiders" or adults.]
Virginia Hamilton is the most important author currently writing for children in the United States.1 The point is perhaps an arguable one, but I think few critics of children's literature would deny Hamilton's significance as an international author of children's books. Winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, presented by the International Board on Books for Young People based in Switzerland that is the field's equivalent of the Nobel, Hamilton has written more than twenty books for children since her first novel, Zeely, was published in 1967. She has a distinct style, one that is poetic, intricate, and political; indeed, all of her books are informed by her commitment to racial issues. She acknowledges that she began writing "at the time of ‘Black is Beautiful’ on through black power and throughout the Malcolm X time and all the disasters that befell this country" (Mikkelsen, "Conversation" 396), so her books resonate with her awareness of the centrality of African American culture to American history.
One of the most powerful recurring issues in the Hamilton canon that demonstrates this awareness is her emphasis on the social effects of inclusion and exclusion on people. For example, in Plain City, an African American girl who lives in her family's commune on the edge of town refers to herself as being "outside" to designate her otherness (15). Once the girl accepts what Mae Henderson would call the "plural aspects of self that constitute the matrix of her subjectivity" (18), she comes to take pride in her family's uniqueness. She then proudly proclaims herself an "outside child," enjoying the double entendre of being someone who loves to be outdoors and one who also celebrates the difference of her otherness (169). When Hamilton depicts marginalized people transforming their otherness or "outsideness" into "insideness," she demonstrates their power to define their own position in life, and in the process she destabilizes the very concepts of inclusion and exclusion.
Hamilton's focus on the social effects of inclusions and exclusions also operates on a narrative level. Her interest in who is inside and who is outside of any given narrative leads her to develop a richly structured system of narrators, narratives, and narratees that asks us to question boundaries that have traditionally been used to demarcate otherness: boundaries between races, between genders, and between children and adults.2 The result is a series of texts whose gathers them together to tell them the important truth she has discovered: Zeely is a queen. Zeely eventually asks to meet with Elizabeth so that they can discuss what the truth really is. The two meet in a glade in the forest, and Zeely wears traditional African robes to their assignation, initially seeming to confirm Elizabeth's version of reality. But during their meeting, Zeely tells Elizabeth two stories in an act of private, intradiegetic narration that sets the ideological tone of the novel.
The first story Zeely tells Elizabeth is an African creation myth. "In the beginning," the few people in the world were to wait for a courier to come tell them their "station in life" (98). One young woman's courier was an eight-foot tall man "with skin as black as the darkest tree bark. Oh, he made a striking figure against the ice and snow!" (100). Zeely tells Elizabeth that the man did not know he was unusual since no one was around to tell him that being eight feet tall was different, but he does eventually find the young woman for whom he carries a message from the gods. When they finally read the message the courier has carried for her, it says this:
Young woman, you are of this man. You shall wed him and keep his house and bear his sons. You will trek many moons before you find people like yourselves. When you find them, you will join them and be good subjects to your king and queen.
The story is one of insiders and outsiders: The woman and the courier are both isolated until they come together and form a community. Only within a community can they find happiness, just as Elizabeth needs to learn to participate in her own community. Zeely then says that she is descended from this courier and his wife, but Elizabeth misses the point about accepting her place in life because she has been expecting to hear that Zeely's forebears were royalty, not that they were subjects to another king and queen. Elizabeth dismisses Zeely's myth as "only a story" and assures the woman that she knew Zeely was "special" even before she decided that Zeely was a queen (108).
In response to this, Zeely tells Elizabeth a second story, about a time when Zeely was a child who believed herself to be a queen. When she was a girl in Canada, Zeely enjoyed swimming at night. An elderly woman who was perhaps a witch, perhaps insane, or perhaps only pretending catches Zeely one night and tells her, "You are the night and I have caught you!" (112). Zeely watches the woman touch a rock with her stick that then turns into a turtle and a vine that turns into a snake. Zeely feels transformed by the moment; it is an empowering one for her. But Zeely's mother convinces her that, "since the woman was not quite right in her head, she had decided that I was the night because my skin was so dark." Zeely feels deflated by her mother's words but comes to believe them and to recognize that "no pretty robe was able to make me more than what I was and no little woman could make me the night." Elizabeth, too, is disconcerted by Zeely's mother's pronouncement; the girl insists that Zeely is different and that she, Elizabeth, would like to be the same way. Zeely contradicts the girl, saying, "To be so tall that wherever you went people stared and questioned?" (113). Zeely does not wish her status as other on her young friend. She tells Elizabeth, "You have a most fine way of dreaming…. Hold on to that. But remember the turtle, remember the snake. I always have" (115).
After this, Elizabeth goes home to her brother and her uncle and tells them Zeely's stories. It is the first time in the text that Elizabeth has been more interested in participating in her community than she has been in immersing herself in her own private dreams. She has decided to quit being an outsider and become an insider. It is also the first time that Elizabeth acknowledges that the Night Walker stories she has been using to terrify her brother are really embedded memories from tales her uncle has told her about the Underground Railroad. The story is like the table they are all sitting around that has been polished to a sheen by the oil their family's hands have rubbed on the narrative structures paradigmatically interrogate racial identity, feminism, and the very definition of children's literature.
Two novels about girls who are storytellers most poignantly demonstrate Hamilton's ongoing concern with narrative stance and its effect on the reader: Zeely (1967) and The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1983) both employ narrative structure to communicate ideological discourses of race, gender, and age to the implied reader.3 I understand these two narratives best when I look at them through the combined lenses of a number of critical theories: narratology, Marxism, feminism, children's literature theory, and reader-response theory. Narrative theory suggests to me ways to investigate narrative distancing in these books as a thematic issue; Marxism, the very study of the socially dispossessed, makes me aware of exclusion as a lack of social power; feminism helps me perceive gender exclusions; children's literature theory sensitizes me to issues of ageism at work in the texts; and reader-response theory requires me to be aware of how the transaction among author, text, and reader can affect the narrative positioning of the reader. The perspective of these combined theories helps to explain the continuum of inclusions and exclusions at work in Zeely and The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, for the degree to which characters are included or excluded from positions of power in these novels is determined by at least three factors-gender, race, and age—each of which affects the character's differing degrees of interiority within or exteriority from her community.
I would like to begin my analysis of Hamilton's novels with a review of the critical theories that best help me to understand the narrative shifts, the ideological complexities, and the construction of the reader in her texts. Gerard Genette, for one, has codified ways of investigating narrative position employed successfully by children's literature critics such as Len Hatfield in his study of Ursula K. Le Guin. Genette identifies "author-narrators," those with a concept of the entire narrative structure, as "extradiegetic" narrators (229). Interior narrators, those with knowledge of only a portion of the narration, he calls "intradiegetic" narrators.4 Extradiegetic narrators are those who have a connection to the "public" in the way that they address their story to a reader who exists outside of their own story, but intradiegetic narrators are connected only to other characters within the narrative (Genette 227-37).5 Narrators are thus defined by narrative distance; that is, by the amount of knowledge they have about the events they are narrating. Since possessing knowledge inevitably affects power relationships, narrative distance is a key factor in inclusion and exclusion.
Susan Lanser complicates Genette's system by noting differences between public and private narrators in feminist fictions: Extradiegetic and intradiegetic narrators' voices differ when they address a public audience within the text or a public audience, like readers in general, from those times when they address an audience of one reader or one listener within a text. Lanser's distinction between private and public narrators stems from her investigation of the relationship between rhetorical complexity and narrative circumstance at work in women's writing (355). She points out how much of women's writing is private, in the form of diaries and letters, and how these issues of whom one is addressing complicate the whole notion of narrator and of narratee (352). Since children's literature is like women's literature at least in being about repressed people who hold little cultural power, it seems only natural that the issues of public vs. private voice also inform children's literature.6
But Virginia Hamilton's novels offer one more layer of complexity to Lanser's narrative paradigm, for the novels I discuss here are narrated by an extradiegetic, public child narrator who listens to and is challenged by at least one intradiegetic adult narrator. That is to say, narrative theory leads us to investigate how the public Child's voice that controls most of the narration is in both novels greatly affected by the voice of at least one adult narrator who tells her a story either publicly or privately. Most significantly, the adults' embedded narratives often carry the ideological burden of the story.
Peter Hollindale is one of a number of critics who has brought the concerns of Marxism to children's literature; he asks us to look at who in a children's text exists excluded from power. His definition of ideology contains little that is novel to those familiar with Marxist theory, but his classifications are among the most accessible to students of children's literature. Hollindale notes that ideology in children's literature is not "a political policy, … it is a climate of belief" (19), and it can be expressed by the text either explicitly in the messages the author intends to communicate or passively through the author's "unexamined assumptions" (Hollindale 10-15).7 Hollindale does not clarify the obvious point that a text can communicate its explicit ideology either directly or indirectly, but in reading Hamilton, the distinction is an important one because, while all of her novels communicate fairly direct, explicit ideologies about race, the novels' ideologies about gender tend to be embedded in more indirect communication. It is in the transaction between the public child narrator and the private adult narrator, however, that Hamilton's implicit ideologies become a central concern for the reader, for the private-voiced adult narrator is invariably the person who communicates directly to the child narrator that she must feel racial pride and indirectly that women can be strong. But the fact that these messages come from an adult (who, having access to power over the child, information the child cannot hold, and control over the child's life, functions as an "insider" representative of adult culture) for the purposes of instructing a child (who is an outsider by virtue of the powerlessness of being a child) creates an ideological tension that is the result of Hamilton's narrative structure.8 At issue is the implied reader these ideologies create because they are pitched to specific audiences ostensibly in need of learning these lessons. Molly Abel Travis observes that, although we risk essentializing the implied reader when we institutionalize her or him according to identity politics, we can learn much from studying the tension created by this very essentialism (179). Identity politics such as those of race and gender are even further complicated when we add the essentialized concept of the child to the matrix of subject positions available to the reader of Hamilton's fiction.
I would like to turn now to Hamilton's novels themselves to demonstrate how the implied reader created by the transactions between narrative structure and ideology extends her concepts of inclusion and exclusion. From her very first novel, Hamilton has engaged this pattern. Zeely is narrated from a third-person-limited point of view through the eyes of a young storyteller named Elizabeth, a girl who prefers to isolate herself from other people so that she can tell herself her own stories. One of Elizabeth's first narrative creations is to bestow new names on herself and her brother while they are traveling by train to spend the summer on her uncle's farm. Elizabeth makes up a more elaborate story when she and her brother spend the night sleeping under the stars; she tells him to beware the Night Walkers who roam at night, and her ghost stories terrify him. But her most significant narrative creation occurs when she becomes enamored with a local pig-farmer, Zeely. At six foot six, Zeely is indeed an imposing woman: "Thin and deeply dark as a pole of Ceylon ebony[,] she wore a long smock that reached to her ankles…. Geeder couldn't say what expression she saw on Zeely's face. She knew only that it was calm, that it had pride in it, and that the face was the most beautiful she had ever seen" (31-32). Zeely, whose "eyes seemed to turn inward on themselves" (32), is clearly an outsider from this community that ostracizes her, but she has such a sense of self-possession that Elizabeth wants to be like her.
Elizabeth's desire for Zeely helps transform the woman into an insider, at least for the purposes of Hamilton's narrative. The transformation becomes most evident when Elizabeth decides that Zeely must be the queen of an African tribe, the Watutsis, because the girl has seen a photograph in National Geographic that looks like Zeely. Elizabeth generally has little to do with the children in the neighborhood, but when she needs them to serve as an audience for her narrative, she table for decades; the story and the table both represent the strength of African American heritage, history, and community. Thus, Uncle Ross is a second intradiegetic narrator with a private tale to tell that is ideological. His tale complements what Elizabeth has learned about identity from Zeely, for if Zeely advises Elizabeth to recognize her place in the world and not exaggerate its importance, Uncle Ross reminds the girl that she comes from a rich tradition of which she should be proud. She need not be royalty to be special because she has racial and cultural identities that make her unique.
The direct, explicit ideologies of these embedded narratives pertain clearly to racial pride. The indirect ideologies about gender are more mixed. Although Elizabeth grows stronger from her interaction with another woman, Zeely is still dominated by an abusive father and deflated by her mother's pragmatism. And the woman in her myth-tale is told, "You are of this man" (106), hardly a feminist sentiment. Yet since the novel was published in 1967, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was more established than the Women's Movement, I think the mixed-gender ideology is eventually less problematic than the age dynamics that lie at the heart of this—and so many—children's novels.
More troubling to me is the fact that the intradiegetic narrators, the adults, are the ones who have wisdom here. Wisdom, by its very nature, is the province of adulthood; children learn from adults because adults often do know more. So when Zeely occupies the position of insider-with-knowledge, is the woman reinforcing Elizabeth's powerlessness, or is the adult nurturing the child so as to empower her? Is Zeely an example of adults in a children's novel appropriating the positions of power, or is the novel simply reflecting a reality that allows children to grow? As Foucault points out, power can be both repressive and enabling (Sexuality 36-49; Discipline 195-228); it is from within the confines of powerlessness that people rebel and discover their own power. Thus, if Zeely is appropriating the child's power, is it possible that this repression is one avenue that will eventually force Elizabeth to discover what means of power are available to her? Must she, and all children, experience powerlessness as a necessary condition of growing into power? Whatever we conclude, whether we decide this power transaction is heinous or enabling or inevitable, the fact remains that the discursive practice of employing a wise adult to guide an innocent (or ignorant) child is so commonplace in children's literature that it is practically invisible even to many trained readers.
In a novel published four years later, The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), Hamilton reverses these traditional age dynamics. Since the narrative in this novel is more linear than those I am investigating closely here and since the protagonists are male and not storytellers, this novel does not necessarily demonstrate the connection between narrative structure and ideology as clearly as those that I have chosen to analyze. But The Planet of Junior Brown is worth mentioning for its ideologies. For one thing, everything colored white in the novel is ultimately evil, and everything colored black is ultimately good—a reversal of stereotyped Western color metaphors. Red, however, is the most important color in this novel because we are all red under our skin; red is the color of everyone's brain (140). But even more important, it is the children, especially Junior's best friend, Buddy Clark, who teaches the adults in the novel that children are sometimes smarter, more resilient, and more resourceful than adults. Fourteen-year-old Buddy articulates the novel's ideology when he claims, "We are together … because we have to learn to live for each other" (217). I think The Planet of Junior Brown, albeit a fairly sexist novel, demonstrates that adultist discursive practices do not necessarily need to dominate every children's novel.
The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1983) extends Hamilton's exploration of inclusion and exclusion in specifically racial terms, for five distinct groups are defined in the novel along racial lines: African gods, black "inside folks" and black "outside folks," Native Americans, and European Americans. Of these five groups, European Americans are the only group that never has status as insiders; they are the other in this text.
Pretty Pearl is a "god-chile," the younger sister of the "best god," John de Conquer, and the oldest god, John Henry Roustabout (5-6); she serves as the third-person-limited narrator for most of the novel. As gods, these three figures are transcendent, so they exist outside of humanity and are clearly better than humans. In fact, John de Conquer reminds Pretty Pearl how horrible it would be for her to become human (9,34). Despite his warnings that life outside of her home on Mount Kenya will be hard, she journeys with him to see what is happening to "de shackled crowd" who are enslaved in America (17). When John de Conquer decides Pearl should continue the journey on her own as a test to prove herself, he allows her to take with her a spirit friend named Dwahro. In a moment of duress, Pretty Pearl also discovers that she can split herself into two people, her child-self and her mother-self, Mother Pearl. The doubleness of Pearl's character gives the text a contradictory double-voicedness, for the reader can interpret Mother Pearl's existence either as proof that all children have an innate capacity for self-nurturance or as proof that all children need someone separate from themselves to nurture them. It is yet another issue juxtaposing interiority and exteriority, for the text destabilizes both the concept that children can take care of themselves and the concept that children need someone else to care for them.
Pretty Pearl, Mother Pearl, and Dwahro eventually discover a reclusive commune of freed slaves who live in the mountains of Georgia during Reconstruction. These people call themselves "the inside folks" to distinguish themselves from those who live "outside," where "they gone make you work and slave like you not free" (134). They forge from their otherness a sense of community. Furthermore, the inside folks depend on another group who are in hiding from white people—the Real People, as the Cherokee call themselves—who have refused to participate in the Trail of Tears and so have remained on their ancestral lands. The Real People recognize Pearl and Dwahro as divine beings, although the inside folks do not, which implies something about the Native Americans' ability to recognize spiritual truths that those who have been deprived of the religion of their homeland cannot. But the inside folks are survivors because they
had grown tough and finely controlled within. Had not their old ones come the long way, the deathly way from Africa? The Africans had survived the slavers and their ships, and the long middle passage across a great ocean. And the inside folks, themselves, grandsons and granddaughters of Africa—had they not endured the field, the breaking back, the whip? … Their hearts beat strong.
Being one of the inside folks, then, is not only a matter of geography; the inside folks are also those with a strong internal sense of identity.
The Real People help the inside folks move to Ohio, where they will be free from persecution by racist white Southerners, but Pretty Pearl and Dwahro lose their divinity in the process because they have lived among people so long that they "commence actin' human" (9). John de Conquer has predicted this would happen, but he is wrong in the second half of his prophecy about those who become human: "Become either a slaver or de enslaved" (13). Pretty Pearl and Dwahro are neither at the novel's end. Both have found a place in their new communal society—she as a storyteller, he as a dancer, singer, and entertainer. And no one in their community is either a slave or enslaved.
But before Pretty Pearl can take her place in the community as a storyteller, she must serve as an apprentice narratee to several adult intradiegetic narrators: John de Conquer, Mother Pearl, and the leaders of the inside folks and the Real People. The leader of the inside folks publicly states the novel's explicit ideology when he tells his people. "We all got a right to de tree of life" (131), a phrase which is repeated three times on that page and twice more later in the novel (208, 302). The leader of the Cherokee also makes clear in a public address that all people of color have historical reasons to fear persecution by European Americans: "Everywhere you have those who would enslave your kind and mine" (275). John de Conquer teaches Pretty Pearl a more subtle ideology when he privately instructs her that her power is internal (39). But when Pretty Pearl abuses that power in an act of hubris by scaring some of the children of the inside folks, he strips her of her divinity. John de Conquer rewards Dwahro, however, with his greatest wish—to become human—because of "de way you give to de people without no selfishness" (261). John de Conquer advocates social responsibility and punishes those who act otherwise.
The character of Mother Pearl complicates Hamilton's tendency to use adult characters to carry her texts' ideological messages. Mother Pearl is certainly an adult, but she is also a manifestation of the child Pretty Pearl, an aspect of her personality that lies intact within her. Since she becomes the incarnation of Pretty Pearl's wisdom, the character Mother Pearl seems to imply that children have wisdom within them that they cannot possibly access as children. This is reinforced when Mother Pearl and Pretty Pearl permanently split, Pretty Pearl to stay with the inside folks and Mother Pearl to return to Mount Kenya. Looked at one way, Pretty Pearl has failed in her quest: She set out to grow into her powers as a god and instead loses them. Looked at another way, Mother Pearl represents Pretty Pearl's success: The "god chile" has grown up and left her child self behind because she knows too much to be a child any longer. She has fulfilled her quest by helping people and by growing into her powers; she returns an adult god to the Mount. Either way, the message to children is that the only way to succeed is to grow up. The possible truth of this message is less important than is the fact that this sentiment inherently undermines the subject position of the child reader by reminding her of her powerlessness.9
As Mother Pearl tries to guide Pretty Pearl, the woman-god has much to say about words, language, storytelling and truth. When she tells the inside children her first John de Conquer story, she assures them, "I may tell you all kinds of tales. But trust me! I double never ever never lie to my chil'ren!" (114). Although the inside children are the narratees of this statement, Hamilton's implied author seems to be directly addressing her implied reader with a statement about the veracity of her fiction. Before Mother Pearl's second John de Conquer tale, she says, "‘Tell y'all a story…. Tell you true,’ said Mother. ‘It be not scary’" (116). Her role as narrator is to assure her narratees of the truth of her words, an assurance that is at the core of much children's literature. Before Mother and Pretty Pearl make their final separation, Mother Pearl tells the girl all the stories she knows, which makes Pearl feel "good inside. It was as if Mother Pearl was giving her many, many lifetimes of talking and storytelling" (281). Even after Pretty Pearl has forgotten she was once a "god-chile," she never forgets her mother-self's stories (297), and she uses them to teach her community history, mythology, and pride. Whenever she stands before them to tell them a story, "She held herself most proud. But she held herself in ward, and they were never sure just what would come out of her, how she would begin…. She did not look at them—she was seeing inward" (306, emphasis added). Here truth is an inward expression that moves outward from the narrator to the narratee, who may then internalize it. Truth is not a fixed entity; it is fluid and therefore subject to inclusion and exclusion, just as people are.
Hamilton calls The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl her most feminist novel (Mikkelsen, "Conversation" 396), and indeed, with its proactive mother figure who succeeds at her quest, the book does contain one of the most poignant depictions of strong womanhood in recent children's literature. Hamilton acknowledges that she created Pretty Pearl and Mother Pearl to offset the absence of female heroes from African American mythology (Mikkelsen, "Conversation" 394). In that sense, the book seems very much directed toward an African American implied reader who needs to know about black female role models to have someone to model herself after. But Hamilton is not completely successful in her feminist efforts, for although Pretty Pearl succeeds in finding happiness and community, she does so at the highest possible price, the loss of her divinity. By the novel's end, although she is one of the inside folks, she is excommunicated from the god-community into which she was born because she has failed. The story's success as a story of interracial harmony seems to come at the price of gender: If Pearl fails, it is because she has acted like a weak girl.
Ostensibly offsetting Pretty Pearl's fall from grace is the fall from grace of her brother and foil, the god John Henry Roustabout. Like the male character Dwahro and unlike Pearl, John Henry consciously chooses to shed his divinity and become man; he does so to provide African Americans with a folk hero who can defeat white men. He goes into battle with the steam drill knowing he is destined to die in the process. But he also knows his death will help redeem those who believe in him because it will give them hope in the face of oppression. The symbolism here is not particularly subtle; John Henry is meant to be a Christ-figure. But unlike other fantasy quests such as Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting or Hamilton's own The Gathering or Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, here it is an adult and a male who serves as savior, not a girl.
The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl is a novel of transformations: The inside folks, the Real People, Pearl, Dwahro, and John Henry Roustabout all make some sort of movement that involves their discovery that they can redefine their subject positions by recognizing their interior powers. But Hamilton's continuum of inclusion and exclusion once again divides itself along lines of race, gender, and age: Men are insiders in this novel; women are meant to be insiders, but ultimately fall short of full empowerment, and children end up, as always, outside positions of power.
Mother Pearl assures the children listening to her stories—all of whom are African or African American—that she never lies to them. Hamilton, like Mother Pearl, speaks unself-consciously to black children, creating a world largely devoid of white people. For the implied child reader, then, white culture becomes the culture of the outsider, the other, which affords children of color a position as inside readers, and which may also displace white readers, transforming some of them for perhaps the first time in their reading careers into outsiders.10 Hamilton also emulates her character Mother Pearl in never lying to her readers about race, although she occasionally does mislead them about gender when she intends to establish strong female role models but subtly undercuts their power.
But whether or not Hamilton lies to her readers about age is a complicated matter. In textually reinscribing the powerlessness of the child within all cultures by depicting children who must learn from adults, perhaps Hamilton is being honest, even brutally honest. In these two novels, adults hold the knowledge that represents the highest goal: truth. The only way children can obtain that goal is to grow, to quit being children themselves, to become more like the insiders, the adults. Black is beautiful in these novels, and being female can sometimes be a matter of being strong, but children, by implication, will always be outsiders.
1. Perry Nodelman expresses a similar opinion in "Balancing Acts." See also the articles by Bishop and by Moore and MacCann, and the biography of Hamilton by Nina Mikkelsen.
2. Hamilton's novels problematize "racial difference within gender identity and gender difference within racial identity" in much the same way that Mae Gwendolyn Henderson demonstrates novels by Sherley Anne Williams and Toni Morrison avoiding reductive representations of otherness (17).
3. The same patterns occur in Hamilton's Arilla Sun Down (1976) and Plain City (1993), but space considerations preclude my considering them here.
4. For example, the unidentified narrator of Their Eyes Were Watching God who reports the conversation between Janie and Pheoby that occurs while Janie narrates her story is extradiegetic, and Janie herself is the intradiegetic narrator of the novel because she is talking specifically to her friend Pheoby.
5. Genette calls third-person narrators "heterodiegetic" narrators and first-person narrators "homodiegetic" narrators. Although his terms have subtle implications about the transaction between the narrator and the text, I fear that his jargon might unnecessarily obfuscate my own points, so I employ the more widely used terms "first-" and "third-person narrator" here.
6. For more on the similarity between children's and women's literature, see Lissa Paul's "Enigma Variations." For a critique of Paul's failure to distinguish that women's literature is peer-written while children's literature is nonpeer literature and is therefore even more subject to disempowering the reader, see Lesnik-Oberstein 139.
7. Bob Dixon first asked scholars of children's literature to investigate textual ideologies in his two-volume work Catching Them Young. Bob Sutherland also classifies explicit ideology in children's literature as "the politics of advocacy [and] the politics of attack" and implicit ideological assumptions as "the politics of assent" (145), but neither Dixon nor Sutherland complicates issues of ideology as much as Hollindale does.
8. Other critics who examine the relationship between adult and child in children's literature include Perry Nodelman, Peter Hunt, and Jacqueline Rose.
9. Or then again, as Foucault might argue, that powerlessness might be a necessary precondition to empowerment.
10. Molly Abel Travis demonstrates a similar process at work in Toni Morrison's Beloved (182-86). Many critics have noted similarities between Morrison's and Hamilton's works. Two of the most trenchant comparisons occur in Mikkelsen's Virginia Hamilton (144-46) and Perry Nodelman's "The Limits of Structure" (45-48).
Bishop, Rudine Sims. "Books from Parallel Cultures: Celebrating a Silver Anniversary." Horn Book 69 (Mar.-Apr. 1993): 175-81.
Dixon, Bob. Catching Them Young 1: Sex, Race and Class in Children's Fiction. London: Pluto, 1977.
———. Catching Them Young 2: Political Ideas in Children's Fiction. London: Pluto, 1977.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.
———. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Hamilton, Virginia. Arilla Sun Down. New York: Greenwillow, 1976.
———. The Gathering. New York: Greenwillow, 1981.
———. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. New York: Harper, 1983.
———. M. C. Higgins, the Great. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
———. Plain City. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
———. The Planet of Junior Brown. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
———. Zeely. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition." Changing Our Own Words: Es-says on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 16-37.
Hollindale, Peter. "Ideology and the Children's Book." Signal 55 (1988): 3-22.
Hunt, Peter. Criticism, Theory, and Children's Literature. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991.
Lanser, Susan S. "Toward a Feminist Narratology." Style 20.3 (1986): 341-63.
Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.
Mikkelsen, Nina. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 7 (1994): 382-405.
———. Virginia Hamilton. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Moore, Opal, and Donnarae MacCann. "The Uncle Remus Travesty, Part II: Julius Lester and Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11 (1996): 205-10.
Nodelman, Perry. "Balancing Acts: Noteworthy American Fiction." Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Ed. Nodelman. West Lafayette: Children's Literature Association, 1989. 3: 164-71.
———. "How Typical Children Read Typical Books." Children's Literature in Education 12 (1977): 177-85.
———. "The Limits of Structures: A Shorter Version of a Comparison between Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 7 (1982): 45-48.
———. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. New York: Longman, 1992.
Paul, Lissa. "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature." Signal 54 (1987): 186-201.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Sutherland, Robert D. "Hidden Persuaders: Political Ideologies in Literature for Children." Children's Literature in Education 16 (1985): 143-57.
Travis, Molly Abel. "Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism." Narrative 2 (1994): 179-200.
Gregory Jerome Hampton and Wanda M. Brooks (essay date July 2003)
SOURCE: Hampton, Gregory Jerome, and Wanda M. Brooks. "Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction." English Journal 92, no. 6 (July 2003): 70-4.
[In the following essay, Hampton and Brooks assess the science fiction works of Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton, concluding that African-American science fiction authors utilize themes of family, alienation, and adaptation to a larger extent than others writers in the genre.]
African American literature has always had elements of what many would refer to as science fiction. As is common in a significant number of books written by and about African Americans, science fiction has historically been focused on narratives of the alienated and/or marginalized "other." In African American literature for children and adults, many authors approach the themes of alienation and "otherness" through the genres of historical and realistic fiction as well as biography. The genre of science fiction, acting as a voice that reminds humanity of the depth of alienation experienced by countless people of color, is less often chosen. In the minds of many, it appears that science fiction is equated with robots and distant planets inhabited by aliens. Despite the lack of black characters in books of this sort, the association is a straightforward one; where there is a discussion of alienation, the unknown and "otherness," there is an analogous link to the African American experience. This link, however, has not proven to be a strong impetus for the publication of science fiction novels written about and/or by African Americans. There is a scarcity of published works in books traditionally classified for adult readers, and there are even fewer made available yearly for teenagers and children.
Among the small but growing number of African American writers of science fiction, Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton are two worthy of mention. These authors are unique because their books examine the connections between the stories of a culture and the genre of science fiction. Butler, typically classified as a writer for teenagers and adults, and Hamilton, well known as a children's author, are both individuals who masterfully locate and translate cultural experiences through science fiction stories.
Over the past three decades Octavia Butler has written eleven novels appropriate for high school and/or college readers: Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind,Survivor, Kindred, Wild Seed, Clay's Ark, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents; and a collection of short stories, Bloodchild and Other Stories. She has received both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, the highest honors in the genre of science fiction, in addition to establishing herself as a permanent fixture in the libraries of sci-fi fanatics all over the world. Butler was a young girl when she decided to try her hand at becoming a writer. She grew up in a segregated America and was fortunate to overcome the myth that the profession of writing was reserved for white men. After being exposed to science fiction that did not include images of African Americans or particularly well-written storylines, Butler decided to produce her own version of literature. About her writing, she says, "I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction" (Bloodchild 145). Her prose is fluid and inviting, devoid of convoluted, esoteric techno-gibberish found in some of the more "traditional" examples of sci-fi.
Butler's fiction has transcended its way far beyond juvenile literature into what might be referred to as mature African American literature. As a fifty-three-year-old black woman who has overcome dyslexia, elements of racist America, and the myriad obstacles in the publication process, Butler has become a person who does extraordinary things. In no uncertain terms, she has opened the door to the genre of science fiction for the African American novelist and theorist via the fundamental questions of the alienated and marginalized "other."
About the same time that Butler published her first novel, Virginia Hamilton entered the world of science fiction writers for children. Interestingly enough, prior to and after publishing her science fiction works, Hamilton wrote in varied genres. Part of her success as a writer derives from her ability to constantly cross genre and subject matter boundaries. Her genres of choice were often those infrequently selected by African American authors who write for young people. In addition to realistic and historical fiction, Hamilton has written magical realism, mysteries, folktales, myths, and science fiction. Her three science fiction novels, commonly read in the upper elementary or middle school grades, include Justice and Her Brothers, Dustland, and The Gathering.
In her books Hamilton frequently creates plots that are infused with historical content, and she brings to life characters who are dually situated in multiple time periods. Hamilton explains, "The time motif goes through many of my books. I have been trying to find ways to say that we carry our past with us wherever we go, even though we are not aware of it" (Apseloff 209). Hamilton's reverence for writing about the past and future simultaneously allows her to reveal the ways in which cultural traditions are transmitted intergenerationally. Keeping cultural traditions alive through her writing is one of the underlying focal points of Hamilton's craft.
In 1974 Hamilton was the first African American awarded a John Newbery Medal. From there, she was subsequently honored with a collection of significant literary awards in the field of children's literature. In fact, in 1992 she accepted the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, a prize given to her in recognition of her entire body of written work (Mikkelsen 67). Throughout her illustrious career, Hamilton wrote over thirty books for children and young adults. She is extremely rare as a children's author because many of her works challenge the norms and standards of books typically created for young readers. Indeed, her genres are often blurred; her writing style is sophisticated, and her subject matter complex. Nonetheless, the literary world and youth continue to gravitate toward her books.
Writers of science fiction like Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton entered a genre that is still being defined by contemporary history and the imagination of its contributors. It is this dynamic generic structure that allowed Butler and Hamilton to write science fiction stories that challenge commonly accepted mainstream characteristics. Robots, time travel, life in the future, and the lives of extraterrestrial beings (a figure of the "other" in general) are usually understood to connote science fiction. Butler's and Hamilton's books are somewhat different because they present unique ways to imagine and ultimately to understand the body and its plethora of identities. Their work allows alienation to be imagined outside of the traditional definitions of the term. These authors present the concepts of time travel and life in the past or future by creating characters who live in worlds where evolution is not robotically or technologically influenced. As the following analysis of excerpts from Butler's and Hamilton's stories demonstrates, the worlds created by these authors are ones where the issue of alienation exists, more profoundly, in the hearts and minds of individual characters. In addition, these characters possess the innate ability to evolve into beings who celebrate and explore, rather than distance, the "Other."
Butler's Science Fiction
Butler's Patternmaster Series takes the reader on a journey of genesis filled with shape-shifters and nonmaterial entities who manipulate their material and spiritual worlds in order to create a new race of people or an "other." The book of genesis for the Patternmaster Series is Wild Seed. Very much like the biblical Book of Genesis, Wild Seed is the beginning of a creation story and the introduction of a patriarch and matriarch, Doro and Anyanwu.
Anyanwu is a black woman who possesses the ability to take the shape of any animal (human or beast) whom she understands genetically or intuitively. Such understanding is obtained by visual assessment or by ingesting the flesh of an animal and simply reproducing its genetic structure and physical form. In explaining her ability to Doro, Anyanwu says:
… I could see what the leopard was like. I could mold myself into what I saw. I was not a true leopard, though, until I killed one and ate a little of it. At first, I was a woman pretending to be a leopard—clay molded into leopard shape. Now when I change, I am a leopard.
A more accurate assessment of what Anyanwu becomes after tasting the flesh of an animal and imitating its form externally and internally is something very similar to Doro: an essence of an individual in the shell of a temporary body. Thus, it is this act of incorporation of another body and becoming that body that is at the foundation of the questions that act as primary engines for the entire series. Is the body dependent or independent of the notion of essence or self? Does the identity and existence of a person necessarily begin and end with a material body? In Butler's fiction the body matters because it extends far beyond flesh and bone; the body becomes a boundless edifice for the articulation of "otherness."
Butler places Doro in the role of a complicated patriarch. Doro's character is not formulated from simplistic binary perspectives. He is never portrayed in the narrative as being completely evil or good. Doro is presented as a complicated and ambiguous persona focused on accomplishing his goals with the least amount of resistance and interference from his charges.
The reader does, however, learn by the third paragraph of chapter one that Doro cannot be completely or simply human. Wandering from the village, being pulled by an unexplained awareness, Doro "was killed several times—by disease, by animals, and by hostile people … Yet he continued to move southwest …" (80). Thus, Doro's existence is independent of the birth or death of body, but is dependent upon the inhabitation of body for life. This phenomenon raises the question of who or what Doro is and how his identity is constructed.
Doro's identity is independent of flesh and bone. The body for Doro can act as a disposable mobile home to be used primarily for reproduction and transportation, not completely dissimilar to that of a "normal" person. His physical identity changes depending on the body he inhabits, but his "essence" remains constant:
He was like an ogbanje, an evil child spirit born to one woman again and again, only to die and give the mother pain. A woman tormented by an ogbanje could give birth many times and still have no living child. But Doro was an adult. He did not enter and re-enter his mother's womb. He did not want the bodies of children. He preferred to steal the bodies of men.
In the above passage Anyanwu identifies Doro as something from the spirit world that manifests only as body, in or among the world of bodies, without being only one body. Anyanwu questions her hypothesis because Doro is an adult and does not live in the womb of mothers. But as the narrative unfolds we learn that Doro does indeed operate largely through and from the reproductive systems of women and men.
Butler's Xenogenesis Series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) goes one step further by introducing the post-apocalyptic humanity to gene traders who rewrite gender and sexuality with a third gender. The second and third books in the Xenogenesis Series suggest the argument that ambiguity in regard to identity can be both empowering and necessary for survival. Through a close examination of Butler's characters Akin (one of the first human/Oankali constructs) and Jodahs (the first third sex human/Oankali construct), the importance of ambiguity in regard to race, gender, and human identity is shown to be immeasurable. The ability of both characters, human-Oankali constructs, to act as go-betweens and bridges between human and non-human difference suggests a new way of thinking about the figure of a multiple-referenced identity. Akin's ability to understand humanity's need to survive independently and Jodahs's ability to shape and color its body to please its partners all suggest that being in a state of ambiguity is a positive attribute that should be sought after instead of avoided.
As introduced in the above analysis, Octavia Butler's fiction presents methods of imagining the body that allow us to question how and why we must be categorized as male, female, black, white, or "other." From this window readers of her work are better able to explore the meaning of various concepts such as alienation and marginalization and various identities such as race and gender. These terms are seen for what they are, arbitrary markers designed to give stability to that which is unstable and ambiguous. Science fiction is the window Butler uses to open the imagination of readers to the construction of "otherness" by painting the fantastic as the realistic.
In an interview with Rosalie G. Harrison, Butler says that in the standard science fiction novel the "universe is either green or all white" (Harrison 30-34). In such literature the "extraterrestrial being" or "alien" is used as metaphor and literal embodiment of the other. Butler, on the other hand, locates highly visual (race, sex, or species) and non-visual (gender and sexuality) identities at the center of her text and forces the reader to grapple with the notion of "otherness" as more than a metaphor of allusion.
Hamilton's Science Fiction
Hamilton's Justice Trilogy—Justice and Her Brothers, Dustland, and The Gathering —is an intriguing collection of African American children's literature because it writes black children into a future that does not seem to be concerned with the racial differences of the twentieth century. Justice Douglass and her twin brothers, Thomas and Levi, along with a neighbor named Dorian, form what is referred to as the "unit." Relying on an understanding of their own "otherness" and feeling somewhat alienated from their friends and family, the three adolescents travel beyond their physical bodies to an apocalyptic Earth on a mission to save humanity with their special collective abilities.
The East African proverb "I am because we are; We are because I am" plays a significant role in the thematic structure of the Justice series. Eleven-year-old Justice is the "watcher" and leader of the unit. As the watcher, she holds the ability to initiate the transportation of the unit from the present to the future. Her character might be interpreted as the village griot or an individual with the role of observing and recording historical events. Justice's ability to observe the present and predict the past enables her to manifest the future. As the unit gathers around an old buckeye tree (firmly rooted in the past), the individuals are transported mentally beyond their bodies into a forward (re)memory navigated by Justice.
Justice's older brothers, Thomas and Levi, at thirteen, further the communal metaphor of the series in that they are psychically bonded twins. Thomas is an aggressive clairvoyant with powerful telepathic ability and a speech impediment, while Levi is a sickly hyper-sympathetic victim who bears the pain for the entire unit. More importantly, Levi is bullied and used as a tool to weaken the unit by Thomas, who is filled with an irrational sibling jealousy toward his younger sister, Justice.
Dorian, the healer for the unit and not a biological family member, serves as a seemingly older and rational sibling. When there is injury in the unit, he manages to provide the appropriate bandage or cure. Dorian completes a family unit that is not traditionally Western in its structure. As Justice is the leader and consequently the most powerful member of the unit, the family takes the form of a matriarchy.
Like Butler's Doro and Anyanwu, Justice and her brother Thomas act as obstacles to one another throughout the series. In Justice and Her Brothers, Thomas is an embittered soul who is incomplete without his brother Levi and his sister Justice, but he has not yet come to understand their connection as a family and a unit. The immature and jealous Thomas takes every opportunity to use his abilities to gain all the power a little black boy can handle in his neighborhood, even to the point of terrorizing his brother Levi through mental manipulation:
I'll take away the bars [in your mind] and everything and we'll continue this talk later. But you'll say what I want to Mom. Because I know who has to be keeping me from Justice.
Because he can enter and control the mind of anyone he chooses, Thomas suffers from the same sort of god-complex as Doro. Levi becomes a trickster-mask that Thomas wears to veil his speech impediment and any other insecurity that might limit his power. Justice ultimately establishes herself as the most powerful and clever of the two by winning "The Great Snake Race," utilizing a tool that Thomas did not consider (196). The snake that Justice captures for the race is pregnant and consequently gives birth to the largest number of snakes in the contest. Levi ad- mits, "There's no rule I know of against having lots of babies … Tice [Justice], I guess you win The Great Snake Race!" (246). Through motherhood and mother-wit, Justice outwits her would-be enslaver and misguided older brother.
The rivalry between Justice and Thomas continues throughout the series until their encounter with the machines and "Slakers" of the Dustlands of the future. In both Dustland and The Gathering Hamilton's references to the African American experience and issues of alienation and "otherness" are subtle yet apparent. The unit is constructed of talented but marginalized characters who are dependent on the survival of their family. Each member plays an integral role in the success or failure of their mission to ensure the existence of extended family (humanity) in the speculative future.
For Hamilton the highest goal for humanity is survival by any means necessary, but mainly by accepting difference and acknowledging the inevitability and omnipotence of change. The synchronization of humanity is an impossibility not worthy of pursuit in the Justice Trilogy, primarily because sameness is not in Hamilton's definition of a better world. As the three books seem to suggest, sameness, or conformity, does not ensure the survival of a species in a hostile environment. In fact, the ability to change and adapt to nonconformity is often essential if a character wishes to survive. Notwithstanding this fact, Hamilton constructs communities dependent upon individuals and individuals dependent upon communities.
Whether written for adults or children, African American literature has sought to express the humanity of black people through narratives of struggle, adaptation, and survival. Many African American authors, like Butler and Hamilton, share in their desire to translate the lasting effects of one of the most fundamental motifs at the root of much, if not all, African American literature: the alienation and marginalization of a people through the possession and transportation of their bodies for free or cheap labor.
Through their reinterpretation of the issues of alienation and marginalization, Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton have forged a path in a genre that is prime for African American exploration. "Otherness" is posited in Butler and Hamilton's science fiction narratives as functions of difference and likeness that demonstrate both the flaws and strengths in human behavior. The genre of science fiction is the new frontier for African American literature that might lead to a more critical view of the past and a future that dismantles the concepts of alienation and marginalization, while it reinterprets the meaning of "otherness."
Apseloff, Marilyn. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature 14 (1983): 204-13.
Butler, Octavia. Adulthood Rites. New York: Warner, 1988.
———. Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
———. Clay's Ark. New York: Warner, 1984.
———. Dawn. New York: Warner, 1987.
———. Imago. New York: Warner, 1989.
———. Kindred. Boston: Beacon, 1979.
———. Mind of My Mind. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
———. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.
———. Parable of the Talents. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998.
———. Patternmaster. New York: Warner, 1976.
———. Survivor. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
———. Wild Seed. New York: Warner, 1980.
Hamilton, Virginia. Dustland. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
———. The Gathering. New York: Scholastic, 1981.
———. Justice and Her Brothers. New York: Scholastic, 1978.
Harrison, Rosalie G. "Sci-Fi Visions: An Interview with Octavia Butler." Equal Forum. Nov. 1980: 30-34.
Mikkelsen, Nina. "Virginia Hamilton: Continuing the Conversation." The New Advocate 8.2 (1995): 67-81.
THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN (1971)
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris (review date 1977)
SOURCE: Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of The Planet of Junior Brown, by Virginia Hamilton. In Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Handicapped, pp. 198-99. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1977.
Junior Brown, black, musically gifted, and extraordinarily obese, lives with his mother, a neurotically possessive woman [in The Planet of Junior Brown ]. His only young friend, Buddy Clark, lives in the basement of an abandoned building where he shelters two young runaways. This compassionate youth is one of a number of "Tomorrow Billys" who teach such homeless youngsters how to survive on their own. When they are independent enough, he will abandon them as he has their predecessors, and take on the care of others. Buddy and Mr. Pool, the janitor, have constructed in a hidden room in their junior high school a model of the solar system to which they had added a tenth planet named in honor of Junior Brown. Neither of the two boys attends classes anymore; instead, they wile away the school days unmolested in this room. Junior takes piano lessons from a woman who has an imaginary relative living with her. Mrs. Peebs won't allow Junior to touch her piano, which has been viciously damaged, but occasionally, when not too overwrought, does allow him to beat out the rhythm of his lessons on a tabletop.
Junior's piano at home has had all the wires removed so that the sound will not annoy his mother. When Mrs. Brown discovers a painting Junior has made, she is aghast at the images and their symbolic meaning and destroys it immediately, further diminishing her son's already tenuous ties to sanity. After the boys are finally caught playing hookey, Junior Brown leaves his home and meets Buddy, and the two enter their sanctuary for the last time. Mr. Pool dismantles the solar system and then Junior takes Buddy with him to his last piano lesson. Mrs. Peebs is in a state of terror over the imagined relative she insists is on her couch. Junior accepts her fantasy for his own and removes the nonexistent person, but, in doing so, severs his last link with reality. Buddy takes Junior to school where Mr. Pool advises him that Junior will need eventual hospitalization. The custodian states that first Junior requires some breathing time, an interval without pressure. They take Junior and Mrs. Peebs' invisible relative to where Buddy lives with his homeless boys, a haven they rename "The Planet of Junior Brown."
Analysis. This powerful, haunting, troubling book contrasts sanity and madness, endorsement and rejection of life, commitment to others and absorption with self. The treatment of Junior Brown's retreat from reality is paradoxical: It is a response to an oppressive, uncaring world and yet it embodies a surprising innocence. Mrs. Peebs surrounds herself with objects, trying to compensate for a life of losses. Her barely manageable fantasy life substitutes for a totally unmanageable real world. Mrs. Brown is victim and victimizer; her asthma and loneliness (her husband is perpetually due home, but never manages to arrive) trap her and simultaneously are the devices she uses to control her son. Hamilton chronicles the inexorable progress and contagion of emotional stress. Buddy's characterization makes an assertive statement presenting a caring, loving alternative to social trauma. A well-constructed plot, superb characterizations, and fine, tight, compelling style are blended in this extraordinary story.
Noel Perrin (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Perrin, Noel. "A Black Planet." In A Child's Delight, pp. 34-7. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997.
[In the following essay, Perrin characterizes Hamilton's The Planet of Junior Brown as a story composed of three interacting levels: eccentricity, black consciousness, and mental trauma.]
Hidden in the basement of a New York public school, behind a false wall, there's a working model of the solar system: an orrery. Mr. Pool, once a teacher but now the janitor of this school, holds secret classes in that room for a small but very select group. There are two kids in his astronomy class. One is a homeless boy named Buddy Clark, a dropout from the eighth grade. The other, an overprotected fat boy called Junior Brown, is a musical prodigy—and also a world-class neurotic.
Class is in session at the moment the book begins. The reader enters the hidden room, lit only by the faintly glowing sun and planets of what does not quite resemble our usual solar system. There's a reason for that. Mr. Pool and Buddy, who built the orrery together, have just added a new element: a very large planet that shares Earth's orbit. This new planet they have named Junior Brown.
Junior the boy watches in mingled delight and disbelief as Junior the planet follows tiny Earth around the sun. Then skepticism triumphs. "‘It couldn't happen,’ Junior said, shaking his head. ‘The close, the earth wouldn't be nothing but a pockmark on the planet of Junior Brown.’" But Mr. Pool and Buddy counter with a quick story about asteroids and nodal points. Junior half-believes again. It is a funny and touching scene.
The day it occurs happens to be a Friday. That's also the day Junior gets his weekly piano lesson down on West 78th Street, and he has to leave the room with the orrery early. He feels around in the dark for his Fake Book, finds it, stands up to go.
Fake Book? What's that?
In no way false, the Fake Book was a thick volume of jazz and rock tunes arranged and copied professionally and in keys suitable for the average singer. The book had cost Junior's mother fifty dollars. Junior always carried the book although he never used the arrangements. But hidden inside were his music lessons and his own classical compositions.
By now the reader is beginning to think that The Planet of Junior Brown is one of those books about a bunch of lovable eccentrics—excuse me, lovable talented eccentrics—and the reader is right. Junior, for all his gross overweight, is a deeply appealing character, and at least part genius. Buddy, the homeless boy, is so bright and so crazy in a nice way as to be irresistible. Miss Lynora Peebs, Junior's piano teacher, is weird and charming, too. She's somewhere in her fifties, but looks thirty-nine. She was once a concert pianist; now she almost never leaves the big apartment on West 78th Street, its rooms bursting with all the antique furniture, junk, old newspapers, and so on she has got in there. Not to mention the imaginary relative who lives with her.
But, as you soon discover, this comedy of eccentrics is only one level, the top one. Planet is an extraordinarily deep and ambitious kids' book. It has two other levels, and on them it is not comic at all.
The perceptive reader may have noticed by now that all these characters are black. (Well, not Miss Peebs. She's light brown, "with a yellowish tint glowing through a girlish smoothness.") On the second level, almost all the comic/eccentric details apply quite seriously to black life in America. Consider the hidden room with the orrery. Consider Junior's Fake Book. Both are themselves, of course: real things in the book. Both also symbolize aspects of deep black consciousness (and, indeed, deep human consciousness), under all the stereotypes.
The other planets in the book do this also: the planets of Buddy Clark. These are not whimsical additions to an orrery; these are hidden groups of homeless black kids in abandoned buildings. Each of these planets has a leader who is also the food provider and the educator. In two of these planets, at different times in the book, the leader is Buddy Clark. Even as he himself is under the tutelage of Mr. Pool, he has younger kids under his. The whole system is quite separate from official American society, welfare, etc. And it is not a system of coping, it is a system of growth. On this second level the book is strong and hopeful.
Finally, there is the scary third level. Here eccentricity is very close indeed to madness. Take Miss Peebs's imaginary relative who lives with her. In a book that was just cute and lovable, he would be some harmless old coot. Not this fellow. She has imagined someone dangerous and diseased. There is a notable scene where Junior persuades her he can take this creature down in the elevator—and when he does, the creature becomes real for him. And not funnily, but scarily. On this level, the book is about the kinds of wounds that almost all human beings have, suffer from, must live with.
Because of the third level, The Planet of Junior Brown is not a book to give to just any kid. It is powerful medicine. And at times it drops plausibility and even story line in favor of symbolic depth. Strong and thoughtful kids will do best with it.
And yet … it is also such a funny, charming book that I hate to say anything that might limit its audience. There's a scene, for example, where Junior is telling Buddy how he spent the preceding evening. His mother had dragged him to a Weight Watchers meeting. Buddy plays straight man while Junior explains what Weight Watchers do at their meetings:
"They talked a lot about celery and raw mushrooms."
"Gawd," Buddy said.
"They seem to think pretty highly of broiled fish."
"Nobody eat that stuff," Buddy said.
If you find Junior's way of approaching broiled fish even nearly as funny as I do, you may find you can't resist reading The Planet of Junior Brown yourself, and then maybe giving it to an imaginative twelve or fourteen year old.
SWEET WHISPERS, BROTHER RUSH (1982)
Naomi Wood (essay date winter 2001-2002)
SOURCE: Wood, Naomi. "Walk-in Closets and Blood-Red Buicks: Urban Space and Personal Development in Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 26, no. 4 (winter 2001-2002): 163-72.
[In the following essay, Wood contends that Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush blends together two recurring thematic elements of African-American literature—classic rural themes and the difficulties of urban life—to create a contemporized form of African-American young adult literature.]
In Virginia Hamilton's masterful and award-winning novel Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, fourteen-year-old Teresa ("Tree") lives in a small apartment. Her private refuge within the apartment is no bigger than a walk-in closet, but it offers Tree safety and room in which to fantasize about a different kind of life. There, she grows not only her imaginative side but also gains insight, through the ghost of her mother's brother, Rush, into her family's past. However, the closet alone is not enough to ensure her full development: Tree also needs a car. Cars figure as images of freedom and self-determination, and most of all, of movement. Closet and car: these contrasting images of containment and expansion provide a challenging, unexpected picture of a poor, urban, black teenager's struggle to develop a viable sense of self. Although the first full-length critical treatment of Sweet Whispers decries its conclusion as alienating and infantilizing, Hamilton's acute perception that growth must happen within the structure of confined spaces, within both light and darkness, stands.1 Hamilton's imagery blends opposites into surprising syntheses, bearing witness to the dynamism and resilience of her protagonists.
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush articulates the great responsibilities and overwhelming pressures young African-American girls often face. Sweet Teresa Pratt is functionally imprisoned in her apartment caring for her retarded seventeen-year-old brother, Dab. Their mother, Viola Sweet Rush Pratt ("M'Vy"), works as a practical nurse and, therefore, lives not with her children but with her patients. Tree is responsible for her brother and the apartment while their mother is gone, a responsibility in which she takes pride, but one that also weighs upon her. She has no memory of things being any other way: "Tree must have said to M'Vy when she was younger, ‘Whyn't you home?’ And probably cried about that. But she didn't really remember. She didn't cry now because she was used to the way things were and knew they were the way they had to be" (17).
At the beginning of the book Tree falls in love at first sight with a beautiful young man standing on the street corner dressed in a suit "good enough for a funeral or a wedding" (10). When he appears to Tree in the same posture standing through a table in her private refuge, the walk-in closet, she realizes he is a ghost. Later, she discovers he is the ghost of her uncle, Brother Rush, her mother's favorite youngest brother. Over the course of the narrative, Brother "takes her out" into the past to let Tree see, feel, and remember her own beginnings (156, 215). The closet provides a safe space for Tree to rediscover her lost identity. Meanwhile, in the present, Dab falls seriously ill and Tree, her mother, and her mother's man-friend, Silversmith, take him to the hospital where Dab dies and Tree must imagine a new life without him. Crucial in imagining this new life is reorienting herself in a new, more spacious world than the one her apartment offers; in this portion of the book, the automobile becomes an important image of safety and progress as Tree develops new ideas about her own future.
Set in Ohio, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush breaks down what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has termed the "great divide" in African-American literature between the rural and the urban, the South and the North, the "primitive" and the "modern" represented by Zora Neale Hurston's Florida and Richard Wright's Chicago respectively.2 The first tradition, in its adherence to a separatist African-American identity offering consolation and connection, allows for little or no integration into the mainstream of American culture and economics. The second, while accurately depicting the alienation of black urban existence, offers no hope. Virginia Hamilton's border-state, Ohio, synthesizes this geographical and ideological divide by combining rural and urban, South and North; Ohio combines both urban industrialism and rural folk-rootedness. For Hamilton, moving to the city does not necessarily mean losing one's identity, nor does the country embody good unambiguously. In her variation on these themes, Hamilton renders for young adults the complex interchange between past and present, stasis and movement. Advocating neither separatism nor assimilation, Hamilton insists upon dignity, self-reliance, and family connection within the context of an urban environment. Moreover, Sweet Whispers 's combination of realist and folk elements is typical of the work of many African-American writers such as Hurston, Alice Walker, and especially Toni Morrison.3 Hamilton's choice to combine folk and realist elements in conjunction with rural and urban settings reflects her dialectic approach to showing characters who are surviving inhospitable climates. On the continuum of possible solutions to the problem of developing a sense of self in a racist country, Hamilton constructs her own nuanced and thoughtful place.
Although Tree is made less responsible, more dependent at the end of the novel, it is clear that these changes are necessary for her growth. Supporting the home without living in it, M'Vy has counted on Tree to occupy her place—a mother's place—a common situation for African—American girls, as bell hooks and Julia Boyd have pointed out: "Commenting on the way in which black girls are often forced to assume adult roles in her work In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem, Julia Boyd asserts: ‘Without fully understanding the adult tasks we were expected to perform, we filled shoes that were much too big for our small feet. Again, we did not have a choice and we weren't allowed to experience the full developmental process of girlhood’" (qtd. in hooks). Hamilton resolves the problems facing a precociously responsible girl by re-writing the Bildungsroman to reinvent innocence for the prematurely experienced. Tree, in order to grow, must escape the stasis of her premature adulthood and reroot herself in the embryonic, richly developmental space of her rural childhood, figured for her in the closet.4 At the same time, she cannot remain there: if she is to grow up, she must also venture out, and this is where the car becomes crucial.
Tree fears being out in the open, a fear that is both pragmatic and psychological. The book stresses Tree's agoraphobia from the beginning. She is hurrying home past the "dudes" who hang out on the street corner calling out to the girls as they pass by (9-10). Although she understands that they aren't "bad dudes," she is "ashamed of them, ashamed they had to go pick on her"; she feels exposed and unsafe as she clutches her books to her budding chest and tries to ignore them. "They laughed and joked so much to keep back that fear look—Tree had seen it—from showing through the hard glinting of their hungry eyes" (10). Where cool dudes are afraid, girls are at even greater risk. As a girl, Tree spends as little time as possible on the street, knowing that open space in a city means danger. Without the protection of closed spaces, the city threatens death or its equivalent for her and her brother: "Put Dab on the Street for one day and night, and Tree knew he would be dead or, worse, a junkie or a slave, stealing for somebody, by the next morning" (81). Tree learns from the formerly homeless Miss Pricherd that living "outside" is "no kind of living. I survived. I was just lucky. I coulda been dead…. [M]any a time, I wake up, they done stripped me. Strip my coat and dress off. Shame! I so ashamed, bein all open like that! Taken my bags of food and clothes" (195). Being "outside" means experiencing a kind of death, the shame of utter abjection and abandonment. As Morrison corroborates in The Bluest Eye, "Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition…. [T]he concreteness of being outdoors was … lie the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn't change, and outdoors is here to stay" (11). And as Miss Pricherd tells Tree, "Young girls fall into down time [out there], all kinds of trouble" (195).
Farah Jasmine Griffin has described the ways African-American migrants to the northern cities established "safe havens" to protect themselves from the overwhelming "negative effects of urbanization" (8). These havens, or "safe spaces," can function either as sites of resistance or of compliance to racist or hegemonic ideologies. Describing people's "efforts to resist the detrimental effects of urbanization," Griffin identifies "[t]wo spaces [as] crucial to these efforts—a domestic ‘homespace’ of women and the street culture space of men" (107). Hamilton acknowledges the gendered division of urban space while depicting its costs: the domestic space may be safe, but it also confines women to the home. For young girls who are still establishing their identities, this confinement can stunt. Tree's reaction to the realities of her environment underscores the problematic status of safety in the urban environment.
Tree's only alternative to outside is, simply, inside. Circumscribed by her family's economic situation, Tree's existence is meager, split between attending school and home. The realities of apartment dwelling in the poorer parts of town are central to her manner of life; all of them emphasize constriction and restriction of movement. Even inside, safety is a concern. Tree hides cash all over the house, even behind the stove and refrigerator, so that burglars can't find it all, the front door has "spring locks and [a] police lock" (47), and she sleeps with "a slender cylinder of tear gas" by her bed (86). She "knows" someday she's going to be "trapped with some stranger" between the double doors of the apartment entryway (139). In spite of these fears, Tree prefers her apartment. The narrative makes clear that Tree's practical concern for physical safety eventually results in a less functional, more psychological agoraphobia, related to self-consciousness about her color and what she thinks people think about her. When Tree waits in the hospital reception area later in the book, she has "difficulty being out in the open…. She [feels] exposed, hot, and disheveled" (152). Tree ponders: "Can't see why I'm always so nervous somebody be lookin at me. So what? But it bother me a lot. Like, I can tell they not seeing me. You want to tell em where to go, too. Only time I feel okay, when Dab an me inside the house" (153). Tree's consciousness of racist pre-judgment inhibits her free and unself-conscious movement in the world around her, further inhibiting her ability to function positively outside the home. Tree has control, of a limited kind, within the apartment. Inside is safe but static, a state of suspended animation.
Tree and Dab spend their lives waiting for their mother to return periodically with money and food. Time is not marked by progress as much as it is marked by the successful repetition of everyday tasks. Tree has difficulty thinking about the future. When a teacher tells her she could get a full scholarship to college and asks her to consider taking tests for Black Achievement, Tree is dubious, dismissive (31). She usually cuts school the days they give tests. Instead, Tree's vital focus is Dab, making sure not only that he is fed and clothed and properly cleaned, but also that he gets enough practice using language and other social skills so that he doesn't regress into infancy: "Tree had to remember to play with him and pay attention to him every day or he would become younger and unable to do much" (37). The contrast between the childlike seventeen-year-old Dab and the motherly fourteen-year-old Tree underscores unequal opportunities for free development or change: Dab cannot develop, and, therefore, because Tree must take care of Dab, she cannot explore her own potential. Although Tree is certainly competent in the ways that she takes care of her brother and the apartment, she is also limited by her mother's long absences and her own lack of training. For example, Tree must make do with baked potatoes topped with her spaghetti sauce when she discovers they are out of noodles (41). Although she takes pride in her ability to make perfect macaroni and cheese from scratch (78), she sees grape Hi-C "nourishing" for the two of them to drink (41). She is primary housekeeper but has trouble making beds well (57).
Anticipating no change in their lives, Tree lives only in the present, waiting. All action involves going within, focusing rather than looking at the larger picture. Emblematic of the interior focus of the young Pratts' lives is their ritualistic reading of a single chapter from a single book, Warren Miller's Cool World. Miller's book clearly owes a debt to the naturalistic focus and techniques of Wright but also offers a vision of the pastoral as a corrective to urban alienation.5 Comfortable with the "loving" and "true words" of the black English in which the story is narrated, Tree and Dab admire the cool street dudes whose lives they are afraid to share (81). Inevitably, however, they read only one chapter out of the entire book, set in the rural south. In this chapter, "The Time I Got Lost," the urban ganglord narrator remembers when, as a small child, he lost himself in the "ferny woods" and was found by his grandfather (82). On the way back home, his grandfather responds with smiles to the familiarly offensive remarks of his white neighbors, the same men who will later lynch him. An essential part of this reading ritual is Tree's interpretation. Dab always asks Tree to tell him what it means and she always obliges, both of them enjoying her role as his "private teacher" (80):
That ain't all it, just the story … It what goes on there when Richard get lost. He know to wait. Cause he know the grandpaw gone come find him. How he know. Because. Love is it. That boy stay put in the ferny wood because his lovin Grandpaw goin to get him if he wait and wait; that grandpaw is gone come. And he comes, too…. Yeah, and it don't matter what the Man do or say to you, the Grandpaw and Grandmaw got all the love inna world for the boy. Grandpaw Custis just yessir the Man to death, it don't matter a-tall because they keeping the boy, Richard, close. Then the enemies gone and kill the Grandpaw for nothing…. But they can't kill the love in the boy … The love the Grandpaw leave him, that was what the old man willed him. The boy never, never forget.
Tree and Dab know well what it is to wait. Their antiphonal repetition of this story and its meaning, "love is it," outlines the limits of their world, waiting for release from the condition of waiting, trusting that their mother's love will suffice.6 Even the harsh ironies of black women's traditional employment as nurses to whites, necessitating deferral of care to their own family, cannot change Tree's simple affirmation "love is it." Tacitly about her mother, Tree's interpretation of the story also unwittingly anticipates her relationship with Brother Rush, her uncle's ghost. Like Grandpaw Custis in the story, Brother Rush too has been killed, tangentially, by "the Man."7 Also like the Grandpaw, Brother Rush's love remains, a family inheritance, connecting him to the niece and nephew so lonely and bereft of family. Even death cannot sever this relationship. Brother Rush's manifestations to Tree offer her knowledge of a wider world that she has forgotten, a rural world in which she was rooted in family, helping her to name the absences in her life. Tree reflects later:
Within the confines of never having a father and no mother present for most of the time, she had carved out a narrow life for the two of them. Her and Dab. Them, in the rooms with Warren Miller. She, taking care of Dab and doing homework. Going to bed tired, with some amount of emptiness she allowed herself to realize. Getting by. She, knowing quiet for years, the way other children knew noise and lots of laughter. If she was ever terribly unhappy in the quiet, if she had missed something, she had known it only as absence. M'Vy. Until now. Brother Rush be come, show me, she thought. A great swell of sadness came over her. Seeing some of Rush's world, she knew how empty was her own.
Without naming these absences, Tree has no direction but the one already laid out for her, this "narrow life" in the quiet of a subsidized apartment with her brother and a book for family. Armed with knowledge, she can begin to find a way out.
Tree's way out begins as a symbolic journey within, to the center of her narrow world. Within the small apartment is Tree's personal refuge, a "little room … no bigger than a walk-in closet…. She would never call the closet room a room. You wouldn't want to show it to somebody as a room. It was more like the end of a room. Like an alcove made too small, with a folding door across it to hide the mistake" (18). As with the isolated chapter from the center of Warren Miller's book, the room is associated with family connection and love. This room is for Tree "about the most comfortable, private place in the whole house" (22). Although the apartment and the walk-in closet are certainly confined, they provide a safe space for Tree to reconnect with what Morrison would refer to as the "ancestor," phantoms of her family's past and to recover her own identity ("Rootedness" 383). The "ancestor" is a figure which regularly appears in African-American literature (Griffin 5). Toni Morrison defines ancestors as "timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a kind of wisdom" ("Rootedness" 343). The ancestor's wisdom is associated with the folk, Southern culture, and the past. Morrison writes, "it seems to me interesting to evaluate Black literature on what the writer does with the presence of an ancestor…. [W]hether the novel took place in the city or in the country, the presence or absence of that figure determine[s] the success or the happiness of the character" ("Rootedness" 343). Hamilton, like Morrison, typically values the ancestor figure, finding it a corrective to the deracination of city life.8 However, Hamilton's ancestor is not an evocation of a simple, vanished, impossible, nostalgic past; rather, he breaks down illusions of pastoral in order to break Tree out of her stasis.
Filled with the detritus of the past—the closet contains "what they didn't need … or the things they would someday have fixed"—the closet is a place to fantasize about a different kind of life (18). There Tree obsessively draws subjects quite outside of her ordinary lived experience: "Just people and houses and trees. Windows with curtains. Lots of space. Families" (20). And in this room, she encounters Brother Rush, who comes to take her "out"—or further within. Brother Rush is both literally an ancestor, one of Tree's unknown uncles, and figuratively the connection between past and future, country and city; he appears in her walk-in closet bisected by the table on which she draws and takes her into the past she did not know she had. Tree consciously connects her imaginative work in the room with the images Rush shows her, and indeed, the images of past family life are almost all rural, spacious, and redolent with community connection (26). The town within Brother Rush's mirror seems idyllic: "the town [was] drenched in the fragrance of wild roses. All the older, smaller houses and bushes and vines of flowers ranging in color from white to deep purple" (72). On Tree's first outing, she finds herself swinging on the front porch of a house in a small community where family ties extend into the neighborhood through aunts, uncles, and cousins. Rush offers Tree "rememory," encouraging her to ask questions long deferred or forgotten: "How come I never think to ask anything? She answered her own question. If you never told there's some answers, how you gone know the question?" (135).9
Brother Rush shows Tree her past, not only through her own eyes, but through the eyes of her mother and himself as well. Here again, we see Hamilton breaking down Gates' "great divide" binary between urban and rural myths. As part of the enlargement of Tree's circumscribed present, the closet of the past contains skeletons as well as roses. In a series of visions circulating around a single event, the day Brother Rush was killed in a car wreck and the ivy fell off the house, Rush gradually reveals to Tree the motivations and fears of the past that continue to haunt the present. Tree's first vision takes her into her mother's body, where she experiences her mother's very visceral, physical love for the baby Sweet Tree but also her feelings for her "firstborn, wretched son, her cross to bear through life," feelings diametrically opposed to Tree's own (32). Tree learns of her mother's abuse of her brother: M'Vy arbitrarily and cruelly punishes Dab for things such as soiled clothing that she tolerates in baby Tree. Through Rush, Tree witnesses again her mother's cruelty and remembers her own participation in, and then rejection of, her mother's actions. At one point pre-school Tree takes a rope to hit the boy Dabney:
You want me tie you to the [bed]post? I can do it. I can be the woman, see? She lifted the rope toward him. He swatted it out of her hand to the floor. His mouth turned down. His eyes filled with tears. Eyes wet and shining at her. The boy climbed up on the bed and covered his head with a pillow. He cried and he cried. She walked in the closet, put the rope away. She never lifted it again.
This episode is crucial not only for the way that it illustrates a family inheritance of violence and abuse, but also for the way that it depicts choice.10 Here, even as a young child, Tree chooses not to continue in her mother's footsteps, instead responding to Dab's grief with love and sympathy. When baby Tree returns the rope, her action expands upon the symbolic significance of the closet: here, the closet holds and hides the instrument of abuse as subsequently Tree will rediscover its existence in the later closet in the city, the one she uses to imagine family idylls. Painful as it is, Tree's recovery through Rush of these lost memories enables release from her static existence, allowing her to begin another path toward adulthood, one that does not limit her to the mothering role she has hitherto adopted. Tree's present definitions of family are based on fictions—fairy tales and TV shows; Brother's paranatural manifestation allows Tree to understand the reality of the past: the love and the hate, the good things and the mistakes (127).
One of the most painful aspects of this entire learning process, yet also one of the most beneficial, is Tree's development of a realistic understanding of her mother as an imperfect human being. As an "outside" figure who only occasionally shares the internal space of home, M'Vy is a paradoxical, flawed character who violates our most basic assumptions about what it means to be a loving mother. Taking her mother's absence for granted, Tree's attitude towards her mother at the beginning of the book combines love with unutterable feelings: "Sighing in their [Tree's and Dab's] minds, M'Vy! M'Vy!, a stirring of memories, like leaves lifting, swirling on a hot, sudden breeze" (12). In many descriptions, M'Vy seems more ghostly than Rush, a memory rather than a living presence. Tree "accept[s] M'Vy as mood and background of her life. Muh was the color and shade of shadows that were always in the house" (17). M'Vy's shadowy quality, meaning much more than simply her color in that it evokes her absent presence in her children's lives, is repeated when she first appears in the narrative's present, in Chapter Eight. M'Vy here is associated with shadows and the dangerous, forbidden outside: "[d]arkness and night hovered in a scent of fresh, chill air around her" (89). Significantly, M'Vy brings the chill of "outside" with her even as Brother Rush does. M'Vy does not share the safe domestic space inside the apartment with Dab and Tree, although she supports it, calling on a second unseen presence—"Dis i pline"—to "[keep] the three of them together…. ‘You cain't see it,’ she had told Tree. ‘You cain't touch it. But it what keep you safe in here. It hold me, working away and coming back to care for yo'w’" (90). Although love is the emotion Tree chooses out of necessity in her barren, circumscribed existence, "discipline" in its uglier forms has demonstrably marred her brother's life and her own.
Unflinchingly, the narrative reveals M'Vy's past sins and present flaws; it also shows her rethinking, reexamining her life's choices. Drawing the character of a parent this deeply is unusual in literature for young adults, in which adults are usually "other" and function simply as foils for the teen-aged protagonists. Hamilton's refusal to simplify the issues surrounding M'Vy's abuse of her son by caricaturing her as an evil person creates a character of depth and resonance, one not easy to dismiss.11 Competent and vibrant herself, M'Vy has never been able to love her soft and helpless son: "Her only boy child was born silly. Had half a mind. It made her sick to think about it. She couldn't help it; he made her sick to death. She blamed him for his own half-wittedness. Knew she was wrong. How could a mother feel that way about her own child? But she did; she had from the time she realized he was going to be so different. Dab turned her stomach. Always had" (120). Such explicit representation of a parent's ambivalence toward her offspring is rare in young adult and children's literature. Here, Tree's access to her mother's thoughts in Rush's dream world and our own access through the omniscient narration help her and us to understand where we might be tempted simply to condemn. By seeing M'Vy's situation, her choices, and her motivations when she was not much older than Tree is now, Tree can understand more clearly how she is like and unlike her mother and anticipate her own life challenges. M'Vy has had a difficult life, exacerbated by her tendency to run away from her problems, but she does not blame others, recalling instead her youth, ignorance, and fear: "I was so afraid. I was young. I didn't have no smarts—who did, back then? I beat that boy. I beat him, help me, I beat him. You won't forgive me [,Tree]. But I won't forgive myself. Maybe I thought if I beat him, people would think he really bad, blame him, not me" (173). For all her failings, M'Vy does not play the victim.
Through everything, Tree admires M'Vy's strength. Emptied by grief and strain after Dab dies, "[s]he had caved in on herself, as though all her substance were gone" (171). Still M'Vy rouses herself to do what needs to be done, dealing with Tree's anger and blame, making funeral arrangements, looking forward to an interminable debt load of hospital bills since she does not have insurance. "Watching Tree, her face slowly pulled together. Puffy, strained, it was; but soon, it began to fill with strength. It grew tough, determined, the way Tree had seen it all her life. Vy got to her feet. She leaned on her knuckles pressed on the table to steady herself. Then she stood up straight, wiped her eyes one last time, studying Tree" (184). Tree, in the midst of her anger, has to admit that "in spite of everything, she liked how strong M'Vy could be" (214).
For all her strength, however, M'Vy is ivy-like, clinging to her daughter Tree's strength, thereby smothering her. On the day that Rush dies, the ivy falls from the house and M'Vy herself faints, suggesting again her need for support. The plant metaphors articulate everyone's need for organic connection with the rural past yet express the different ways plants themselves respond to the environment. M'Vy must stop propping herself upon the strength of her daughter and allow her daughter room to grow. M'Vy's strength, like ivy, has also been her weakness: she cuts her losses and moves on rather than dwelling on the "might-have-beens" of the past—she does not root. Rather than seeking her vanished husband, she has moved and gotten a job: "He walk away one day. Came off the job but he never come back. Some say he went to Cincinnati, but I never knew. Didn't go looking. A woman, a mother of two kids, cain't just pick up and go hunting" (133). Rather than testing her children for the hereditary disease porphyria, she avoids it: "‘Didn't ever think Dab could have it. Call me a fool. Been so busy workin, making our lives—I'll take a lot of the blame,’ she said simply" (214). Intent on working out the necessities of food and shelter, M'Vy's pragmatism has left her children doubly bereft, empty. She admits to her accusing daughter: "I should've stayed with you both. But I didn't, and now it's water under the bridge. Parents make mistakes. I did and your daddy did. I left. He left. We both wrong…. I'll have to live with it" (212, 214).
M'Vy, rural born as she is, has lost her own connections with the past in her efforts to survive the present. No matter how M'Vy may seek to ignore and outlive the past, however, it continues to haunt her and affect her children. For example, Tree confronts her mother with her newly remembered knowledge of Dab's abuse at the same time that she tells M'Vy of the ghost. Unable to see the ghost herself, M'Vy ponders the significance of the ghost's appearance to her children, remembering her own rural past and the old country women seeing things, talking of the mystery:
Back then, you wouldn't think there was some cities close by. New York. Because of so much country sky and thick country woods. In the hollows lived black folk. When it rained, the dirt roads ran to mud…. What I remember most was that, so far separated, there was nobody come pick up any trash, our garbage or our plain old junk the way they do now. We had mounds of wrecked things half-buried in the mud. Shoot. Talking bout land fill! We bury our garbage, feed it to animals, feed the flies.
I never seen the mystery…. But I remember the talk. Like it happen this morning! Old womens, hanging around. They didn't belong to nobody no more, even they chilren had left the place or died off. 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. I guess my Tree doing something right. For she seen without nobody telling her how. Say it's in the blood of centuries, comin down the line, just like health or sickness.
Tellingly, in M'Vy's recollection, mystery and garbage rest side by side. Once again, in the cloistered spaces where there is both safety and confinement, "garbage and plain old junk," connections with the paranatural and with the mythic past of Africa are possible. Even women who "don't belong to nobody no more" derive insight, dignity, and power from their bond with the past. M'Vy's response to the past has been to leave, bury, and reject it; hence she cannot receive Brother Rush's gifts, but she recognizes Tree's experience as a gift and evidence of a strong heritage. Tree's contrasting openness to the ancestor is atavistic; without that connection, she has no roots and could not grow in her urban environment.
Tree's newly developing insights about herself in relation to her past all discover identity figured as a series of concentric circles going inward toward a core explicitly associated with rural and family connection. The walk-in closet, the Warren Miller book, and Tree's experience of her mother's past all look to a point of origin in the country. Tree enjoys the sensation of growing small, becoming a child again, without having the worries expressed by the adults over her head, although she hears them being discussed. In her ordinary present, Tree yearns after childhood, forced as she is to be all-competent for Dab. Greeting her mother after one of M'Vy's long absences, Tree "[flings] herself into M'Vy's arms. Vy staggered under Tree's force. Then Vy held her, lifting her off the floor. She swayed with Tree from side to side, smothering the child against her. What did it matter that Tree couldn't breathe, planted as she was against M'Vy's breast? She would have grown again inside M'Vy if she could have" (90). Here, although Tree wishes to become a child again, her mother's body "staggers" under the force of her need. Neither can really sustain this posture for long, however much both might wish it. Opposed to this smothering infantilization is Tree's recovery of her lost childhood through the closet and Brother Rush, helping her to recover the innocent, inexperienced self that has been shed of necessity. In a real sense, Brother Rush allows Tree to be reborn out of the womblike space of the closet into new life by illuminating her past.
Even as plants need light to grow, Tree needs light in order to recommence her own development. Hamilton's play with the concepts of light and dark provides an excellent example of what Gates calls "Signifyin(g)": "repetition with a signal difference," showing an awareness of language and parody (Gates 51). On one level, Hamilton's use of light and shadow imagery supports traditional white establishment notions of light's positive value over dark's negativity. Embodying the root "benighted," Tree's and Dab's dark apartment, which lies in a "false night" (Whispers 61), protects them but stunts their growth. Light is connected with knowledge. Hamilton, however, diverges from Enlightenment dogma by suggesting that knowledge is not limited to the rational. Literalizing the metaphor implicit in the word "enlightenment," M'Vy whispers, "Some say the mystery come in a seeing light" (132, emphasis in the original). The ghost always appears in a strange, mystic light holding a mirror-shaped "space of green and sunlight" (66). When Brother Rush takes Tree "out" to experience the past, she registers alternating shade and sunlight as an integral part of the experience: "[t]hey were flying in the car down the gray strip of road. There was sun, then shade in stripes and circles on the road" (103-04). These "stripes and circles" of light and dark write a larger symbolic story of struggles for knowledge against a backdrop, rarely directly mentioned, of white racism.
The victims of porphyria, the hereditary disease that kills M'Vy's brothers and son, are allergic to light and must carefully protect themselves from it. Both Dab and Brother are scarred and burned by light exposure and experience acute pain. Brother tries to hide his scars with beautiful clothing and drinks gin in a counter-productive effort to relieve the affliction; Dab simply rests in his darkened bedroom, using drugs and divorcing himself from life outside. Tree muses, "Ain't it strange, black men get a disease where no light can touch their skin? Ain't it so awful strange?" (183) and M'Vy explains: "‘It come from Africa,’ Vy whispered. ‘Yea, way long time ago. It was a white man's disease. Traced to South Africa and a Dutch settler. Then, it became a colored porphyria and make its way to America probably through the slave trade’" (183).
Light and whiteness, however, only partially symbolize paingiving racist oppression. Light represents more than white hegemony. As we have seen, light can also signify insight and ancestral memory. Thus, Dab's "light shoes" add another facet to light's complex iconography in the novel. Dab has been given novelty shoes with electric bulbs that light up in the toes. "‘Now you always be light on you feet,’ M'Vy had told him" (35). Here, lightness is identified with absence of weight, a lightening of the gravity afflicting the two teenagers. Like a sad clown, Dab "shuffles" and "moans" when he wears the shoes; further, he wears "his shuffling light shoes" on "bad days" as a sort of charm against his ills (37). Although light may hurt him physically, he can still be "light on his feet," "do[ing] a little dance," "sing[ing] a little song" when he wears the shoes (35). The last time we see Dab wearing them is in a dream Tree has while Dab struggles for his life in the hospital. Here, for the first time in their relationship, Dab is shown to be leading the way, up, wearing a yellow shirt and his "shuffling light shoes" (163). "He was dancing up the cable; his shuffling light shoes showed him the way" (164). Tree cannot follow him; "She fell; falling, long and deep in the dark. She screamed for her brother, but he was beyond her, a dancing fool" (164). In a doubled signifyin(g) meaning, a "dancing fool" means both the standard English interpretation and also the expertise indicated by the Black English expression.12 The color yellow, previously described as the "deadly shade" worn by the woman on the bicycle who indirectly causes Brother's death, is also the color of the quilt used to wrap Dab up when he is taken to the hospital (117). Associated with death, yellow, a sun-color, is linked with the insight death brings. The yellow light of the shoes "show[s] the way" for Tree when she is truly alone in the apartment, waiting for news of her brother; she finds Dab's light shoes and puts them on: they make her laugh and cry (165). Tree walks back to the kitchen, "still watching her feet light the way ahead of her" (165). In death, Dab regains the light his disease cost him and helps his sister find her own way without him. Newly rooted in her past, Tree grows toward the light, particularly as it is figured in the external space of the automobile, which traverses "sunlight and shade" (71).
"You can get me to do practically anything if you put me behind the wheel of a big Detroit-built … I love sleek, overblown, cartoonish cars," Hamilton has said ("Boston" 30). As important as the confined static spaces of the closet are to Tree's grounding, she cannot envision her own future possibilities without being exposed to the outside world: the car offers an alternative "safe space" to experience the delights of movement and speed. Epitomizing the urban industrial north, American-made cars deliver death and disfigurement while at the same time providing freedom, movement, and autonomy. The first references to cars in the novel foreground their power to kill or maim: Tree compares the "tired, old look in Brother Rush's eyes" with the expression of a neighbor, Mr. Simms, who "lost his wife and two sons in a car wreck all over the interstate" (26). In Brother Rush's dream-time, Tree's Aunt Binnie's dog "had been run down by a car. He dragged his hind legs, poor dog, following Binnie" (31). Both crippled but compelled to walk to earn a living, Binnie and her dog provide a pathetic commentary on the rural struggle to survive. Brother Rush himself uses the car as a suicide machine to release himself from his own painful porphyria. It is noteworthy that cars harm the helpless, the dependent, the terminally ill in this book. Emblems of urban industry, pitiless, almost Darwinian, cars test survival skills. Little Dab, retarded and neglected, does not really like cars—he "loved all things that did not move quickly. He loved the [steering] wheel when it was still. He loved Brother, when Brother was still, like now. He loved statues and quiet" (70). Stasis suits Dab since he is unable to progress mentally or socially; he is acutely prone to motion sickness and made uneasy by the flickering images on a television set but can look at a picture for hours. Moving cars disturb Dab.
By contrast, baby Tree loves the movement of a car, hanging half-way out the window to feel the breeze and reach for the sunshine as Brother drives the car fast and as her mother holds her firmly (68). Even as she chides Brother for driving too quickly, the mother responds positively to Tree's speed lust: "You ever see a child like this one? The woman said admiringly. Behind stickin up all sassy!" (71). When Brother warns against letting the child hang out too far for fear of getting hurt by branches, the woman muses on her name, giving baby Sweet her nickname: "Tree. That who she be growing to. Tall" (71). Tree's fearless embrace of speed, wind, and light suggests to her mother that she will grow tall like a tree, the nickname paradoxically connoting rootedness, monumental, and stationary qualities.
The descriptions of Brother Rush and his car are particularly rich for their commentary on possibilities for movement or change. Brother's car is Detroit-made, a "Buick, blood-red and big," quintessentially American, masculine. Its bright color denotes heat and speed, adventurous risk-taking, and joyous abandon to movement (106). Rush's car is most often described as either "flying" or "screeching to a halt" (114-15). There is no moderation, nor is there any felt need for it; the car epitomizes Brother's life: "Rush, of course, had no ordinary work. He was the Numbers Man, known for his fast car and daring ways. He made out better than three men holding down steady jobs and all their money put together" (29). Repudiators of convention, all the men in Tree's former life live hard and drive fast: Tree admiringly witnesses their risk-taking behavior repeatedly. When Brother goes to pick up Tree's father, Ken, to go to a Cincinnati Reds game, he brings "the Buick to a screeching halt beside him. The man looked alarmed at how close Brother had come to his feet. But he didn't flinch" (115). Later, Tree admires Ken's own "maniacal" driving speed: "You a stone driver, Tree told him, proud of him" (117). Consistently paired with the driving is Rush's "jar of white liquid with lemon peel," the gin which he uses to help ease the pain of his porphyria (105). Blood-red, the car evokes the bloodlines M'Vy speaks of, mystery, but also the heritage of sickness. The car's color also suggests early, violent, unnatural death: the near-collision that precipitates Rush's death is with a woman in a yellow playsuit, "a deadly shade on a blood-red bike" (117). Rush's car offers Tree consolation and closure after Dab's death: "Going for a ride! She was in the backseat of Brother's car, smelling odors of alcohol and cigars…. The two of them, Brother and Dab. Brother was driving fast. Their faces were full in the sunlight. They were talking and laughing, having a good time" (178-79). Here, for the first time in the mirrored world, Tree is the age she is in real life, as if to tell her that she has been caught up and no longer needs to regress. She also learns she must say good-by. Brother in this last vision turns for the first time and looks her straight in the eyes, forcing her to realize death's finality and her own separation from it: "Brother's face was turned clear around. It was no longer a face; it was a skull, old and white. Roots of things began growing in it" (180). Tree realizes she must leave Brother and Dab to the world of the dead, comforted by the knowledge that they are together in a grand Buick headed for paradise. Having become rooted, almost literally seeing her own roots in the past represented by her uncle, she is now ready to move on.
In Tree's present, she does not have access to grand, expensive Buicks but is used to riding the bus. Midway through the narrative, Tree discovers that her mother has a male friend, Silversmith, and has bought a car. Men, who have greater earning power than women, can own red Buicks; women buy muted gray Chevies. Simultaneously resentful and intrigued, "[t]he car was something she had never known she needed badly" (96), she contrasts her mother's plenitude with her own and Dab's lack: "He [Silversmith] get the car and you and everything. And me and Dab, we got nothin" (95). Even during the horrors of the ride to the hospital with terminally ill Dab, when she finally gets to ride in her mother's Chevy, Tree can't help but enjoy it: "[It] smelled new all around her. Clean and new, like no other smell in the world. No other power was like this power motor in a good car. Good Chevy. Had to cost some money" (142). In spite of everything, a whole new world opens up for Tree, the world of an ordinary middle-class adolescent:
The thought of taking driving lessons was for Tree like discovering a sunken treasure. Right there inside her were things she'd never thought of, never knew she wanted. Slowly, now, she began uncovering them.
I buy the gas. I buy the gas for this car, for the times M'Vy let me take it over on weekends. Have me this job. Working waiting on people at places like … like … McDonald's! Or you work at the checkout in the supermarket. More like, you go study. Work in a hospital. Never been to one. So I don't know what jobs they are. But I can find out. I can do it!
Having never before thought about her future, in the car Tree begins to grow: She begins to think about "outside" and its possibilities—working, first at fast food places, and then, imagination racing beyond her previous speed limits, she visualizes working at school, then places that require more education: "I can do it!" Cars provide Tree with the combination of safety and mobility she needs to contemplate the outside world as a place which now offers promise as well as danger.
In Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, Tree discovers she is not fully grown, though she has functioned as an adult for many years. If she is to grow into the strong woman she can be, she has to recognize and accept her own not-yet-realized potential. This might feel like a step back—she must consent to be a child—still, it is a necessary step for her to recommence her own truncated development. In the heat of anger, Tree declares that she will run away to find her truant father; she comes to recognize the need, if she is to have a future at all, to nurture herself by staying at home, studying, and working toward the goal of future freedom. Knowing what she has come to know about her family, about herself, Tree realizes her transitional state, overcomes her previous assumptions that nothing will change, and anticipates a future. Although the family continues to be widely spread—Brother and Dab are dead, and M'Vy continues to work away from home—the connections that have been established will last. Simply because Brother and Dab are dead does not mean they do not continue to play a part in Tree's life. As we learn from Brother Rush's appearances, from Cool World and Tree's interpretation of it, and from the entire narrative, the dead are still part of the living. Likewise, M'Vy's continuing to live away from her daughter, while not ideal, reflects "poor folks' reality; black reality you want give it a title" (186-87). M'Vy makes it newly possible for Tree to grow up by allowing her to become a child again. She has made arrangements to trade room and board for housekeeping with Cenithia Pricherd, the homeless woman. Patronizing to and resentful of "Miss Ole Lady Pricherd" at the beginning of the book, by the end Tree comes to appreciate her expertise (47). Contrasted with the incomplete meals she makes at the beginning of the book, Tree now is served a full, balanced meal on a tray with napkins and silverware: "There was hot chocolate and stew and good-smelling beans. And a bowl of chicken and noodles, mixed. The sight of corn bread with butter melting into steaming cracks made Tree weak all over, hungry weak" (192). Tree can now allow herself to be the weak one, to be fed and nurtured rather than always being required to be the caregiver. Although Kirby Farrell writes that Miss Pricherd's white uniform recapitulates abusive capitalist norms by making her into a servant (174), Tree herself thinks of those dignified women in the hospital, so cool and self-possessed (193). Miss Pricherd has become a caregiver, a nurse, and takes manifest satisfaction in her situation. M'Vy knows that what's past cannot be erased: "But I'm at least tryin to make it right. I'm gone put it all together one day. You and me and Silversmith, and Don, if he wants, and that woman with nothing and nobody, Cenithia" (212). Rather than limiting family to blood lines, Hamilton here indicates that family is also a creative act of mutual dependence, mutual help. Tree's victory at the end of the novel is not about imagining her relatives away, but about making new connections with them, breaking through the negative patterns of the past, patterns of ignorance, fatalism, and isolation. Crucial to this breakthrough are the urban "safe spaces," closet and car, that alternately illuminate and nurture this family's Tree.
A version of this essay was delivered at the Children's Literature Association conference in Omaha, Nebraska, June 1997. Thanks to Kate Capshaw Smith and Chris Chism and to the anonymous reviewers of Children's Literature Association Quarterly for their useful responses to drafts of this work.
1. Kirby Farrell's article, "Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush and the Case for a Radical Existential Criticism," while detailed and critically acute, relies on adult formula-fiction paradigms such as the gothic romance and sources in Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, and other European antecedents for his critical paradigms rather than the book's contextualized in children's and African-American writing. This reliance results in a misreading of the book: Farrell argues that the novel "say[s] more than it knows" by offering a compensatory fantasy of alienated heroism while in fact demonstrating the inadequacy of that response (176). Gail Sidonie Sobat's 1995 comparison of Beloved and Sweet Whispers more usefully contextualizes the latter in African, African-American, and children's orature and literature.
2. The first is the folk-based literature of the rural South, depicting a pastoral existence that maintains folkways, thus avoiding the alienation associated with the urban North; the second is the naturalist literature of the urban North, depicting an existence defined and destroyed by the stark realities of economic and racial disenfranchisement (Gates 182). Thanks to Lawrence Rodgers for pointing me to this citation and for inspiring through his own presentation for the Kansas State University English Department Faculty Colloquium series the ideas that led to this essay.
3. Gail Sobat's article in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly provides a Jungian/mythic comparison of the work of Hamilton and Morrison.
4. Young girls being required by circumstance and maternal absence to occupy the mother's place is a phenomenon not limited to African-American girls, nor is it unprecedented in children's and young adult literature. One can see this in the Dicey novels of Cynthia Voigt and as early as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. However, the peculiar economic and material circumstances of African-American women of the Great Migration add particular features to the situation as it is portrayed by Hamilton and Morrison: racism, economic disenfranchisement, and maternal absence through a combination of necessity and choice. I recall a discussion in my women's studies class some years ago in which a young African-American student said to her white, upper-middle-class peers, "What's all this talk about taking time off from work to take care of children? My mother always worked! She'd think I was a wimp for taking time off!"
5. Cool World ends with the potentially rehabilitated protagonist growing flowers in a juvenile facility located in up-state New York. Written by a white author and praised by James Baldwin as "one of the finest novels about Harlem that had ever come my way" (qtd. in Love 11), Cool World's status is ambiguous in today's polarizing and essentializing identity-based critical climate.
6. I have omitted from the quotation Dab's interjections, themselves part of the ritual of reading the story. The episode evokes the "call-and-response" style of Black preaching.
7. Rush has the hereditary disease porphyria, which has killed all of his brothers. Porphyria "is a disorder in which the body produces too much of the chemical prophyrin…. [It] affects either the nervous system or the skin. When porphyria affects the nervous system, it can cause chest pain, abdominal pain, muscle cramps, weakness, hallucinations, seizures, purple-red-colored urine, or mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and paranoia. When porphyria affects the skin, blisters, itching, swelling, and sensitivity to the sun can result. Porphyria is an inherited condition. Attacks of the disease can be triggered by drugs (barbiturates, tranquilizers, birth control pills, sedatives), chemicals, certain foods, and exposure to the sun." (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases [NIDDK] of the National Institute of Health [NIH]). A prominent historical figure who was affected by the disease was King George III of England ("Mad King George").
8. Some male writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, on the other hand, have "great difficulty with that ancestor" or are "confounded and disturbed" by them (Morrison, "Rootedness" 343). For a detailed discussion of the parallels between the writing of Morrison and Hamilton, see Nina Mikkelsen's important Virginia Hamilton. In particular, "Both have focused on the ancestral female as a culture-bearer and the restless black male as cultural pathfinder" (Mikkelsen 145-46).
9. Hamilton has said that she is interested in "survivors" ("Writing" 614). Although Hamilton is acutely aware of racial inequities, she discourages a rhetoric of victimization, instead emphasizing resources available and necessary for self-esteem and growth. In Hamilton's works, survivors are those who, rather than indulging in weightless fantasy, face the harsh facts of life, incorporate them into their narratives of self, adapt, and push on. Hamilton's own rich heritage in her extended family, a family of "interesting talkers," taught her that narratives are in themselves powerful; she calls it "rememory," a re-telling of the past in order to "put their own flesh and blood in the proper perspective," making it "both myth and history" ("Ah" 637). In order to become her own caregiver, Tree must connect with the true stories of her family's past, returning to childhood so as to grow.
10. Farrell uses this passage to support his contention that "children compensate [for being denied by parents (and by) competing for scarce autonomy] by dominating those weaker than themselves, so that initial failures of nurture spread crippling consequences in wider social relationships" (167). He does not quote the last, crucial sentence in the paragraph.
11. While the narrative refuses to condone or mitigate M'Vy's treatment of her son, it also allows us to see a multi-dimensional human being. I appreciate, as I hope my analysis makes clear, Hamilton's refusal to demonize this absent mother at the same time that she unsparingly delineates the consequences of M'Vy's actions. Tree will not grow by following her mother's example but by being aware of it and making other choices.
12. "If someone says ‘Tyrone was a dancing fool,’ it does not means [sic] Tyrone is a fool. It means he dances well!" (Banfield and Wilson 9).
Banfield, Beryle, and Geraldine L. Wilson. "The Black Experience through White Eyes: The Same Old Story Once Again." Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 14.5 (1983): 4-13.
Farrell, Kirby. "Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush and the Case for a Radical Existential Criticism." Contemporary Literature 31 (1990): 161-76.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Who Set You Flowin'?" The African-American Migration Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Hamilton, Virginia. "Ah, Sweet Rememory!" The Horn Book Magazine 57 (Dec. 1981): 633-40.
———. "Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Acceptance." The Horn Book Magazine 60 (Feb. 1984): 24-28.
———. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. New York: Avon, 1982.
———. "Writing the Source: In Other Words," The Horn Book Magazine 54 (Dec. 1978) 609-19.
hooks, bell. "On Death and Patriarchy in Crooklyn." Z magazine. n.d. http://zena.secureforum.com/Znet/zmag/zarticle.cfm?Url=articles/hooks1.htm 22 Nov. 2001.
Love, Glen A. "Warren Miller: White Novelist in a Black World." Negro American Literature Forum 9 (Spring 1975): 3, 11-16.
Mikkelsen, Nina. Virginia Hamilton. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Miller, Warren. The Cool World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, 1970.
———. "Rootedness: the Ancestor as Foundation." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984. 339-45.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institute of Health (NIH). "Porphyria." Porphyria: NIDDK: National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Feb. 2001. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/summary/porphria/porphria.htm. 22 Nov. 2001.
Sobat, Gail Sidonie. "If the Ghost Be There, Then Am I Crazy?: An Examination of Ghosts in Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush and Toni Morrison's Beloved." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 20 (1995-96): 168-74.
THE MAGICAL ADVENTURES OF PRETTY PEARL (1983)
Nina Mikkelsen (essay date fall 1986)
SOURCE: Mikkelsen, Nina. "But Is It a Children's Book? A Second Look at Virginia Hamilton's The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 3 (fall 1986): 134-42.
[In the following essay, Mikkelsen reviews the tone and dominant themes of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, debating whether the novel is more properly defined as a work of adult or children's fiction.]
In 1983, Virginia Hamilton produced a novel very different from those she created before and also, different from what others in the field had written. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (Harper) is a fantasy rising on the scaffolding of black folk materials and the history of Afro American experience. And according to the author, the book is also her best:
Pretty Pearl is a culmination of all the work I've done and all the things I have tried to do in each book. Each book was for me somewhat incomplete because I could never do everything that I loved in a single book. This time all my love for the mythology and the folklore of black culture and black history and my love for creating characters and plots seemed to come together to such an extent that I felt that it was a completely organic book.
Although I had read Hamilton's novel shortly after it first appeared, I decided a year later, after reading her comment, to take a second and more critical look. If she were correct and the book her best, I wanted to reexamine it to see just what makes a children's book good. Ironically, however, the book had been such a rewarding experience for me as an adult that I began to wonder if it should really be called a children's book. "Why wasn't the book simply marketed for the adult audience?" I later asked Hamilton. "It could have been," she replied. "But the publishers don't want to let go of me for children's books. They will have to at some point though. Harper and Row has no problems. They allow me to experiment."1
Pretty Pearl is the story of a god-child who travels from Africa to America in the eighteen century to aid the African humans captured as slaves. Once immersed in human culture, however, Pearl succumbs to human predilections, forgets the rules laid down by her older brother (and "best god") and thus in the end loses her magical god power to become human and dependent on human "luck." The novel is essentially the story of Pearl's growth, her emergence from childhood innocence to young adult experience. How she grows is Hamilton's subject and that she does grow, does not shrink in stature as she "falls" from god to human form, is Hamilton's challenge as author, perhaps her greatest challenge. And it also tells us a great deal about whether Pretty Pearl is a children's book, for if Hamilton's child protagonist fails at her task, the child reader will see despair rather than hope in any child taking action to effect change in the world.
Hamilton's desire to experiment (she never rests easy with pat formulas or with duplications of successful ventures of the past), and the degree to which she was willing to challenge herself in Pretty Pearl, are what I think makes the book a good one, perhaps even a great one, for I agree with Lois Kuznets that "books are fascinating primarily because they are the product of choices that creative human beings make, choices that readers are persuaded to accept as natural and inevitable through the sheer power that the writer exerts" (112). In this article, I hope to show that the choices Hamilton made in writing Pretty Pearl produced a novel of special power and also one accessible to children.
Certainly the most obvious experiment or choice of the book is the genre itself—Hamilton's blending of history and folklore to produce historical fantasy and a quest fantasy of the Afro American experience. Many fantasies for children rise on the scaffolding of traditional folklore (the works of Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and Nancy Bond, all rooted in Welsh or Arthurian lore, come quickly to mind). What seemed to be missing before Hamilton's work, however, according to Rudine Sims, was fantasy (human fantasy as opposed to animal stories) influenced by Afro American tradition. "You have to be steeped in the material," explains Hamilton,
before you realize this is a wonderful way to bring the Afro American experience into literature with something other than historical facts. I always put history into my books, but this was a way to bring folk material and history together and create fiction at the same time.
In order to utilize African materials, Hamilton had several choices. She might have created African or Afro American characters in some legendary time or place similar to the way Mildred Pitts Walker created Brother to the Wind (Lothrop, 1985) or the way Lloyd Alexander used Welsh lore in the Prydain Chronicles. Or she might have exposed a modern day Afro American child to some ancient legendary character, as Garner and Cooper have done with their British child characters. But as she says, she wanted to blend both history and folk material in the book, and so she takes an entirely different path from other writers who reshape fiction out of folk culture. She introduces as her major characters mythic gods who, in their various magical transformations or special abilities, can mingle with Afro American humans in order to help them in one of the most turbulent periods of American history, the post Civil War Emancipation era.
In addition, she introduces as two of her gods, Afro American folk heroes, John de Conquer and John Henry, links them as god-brothers, in fact, and antithetical siblings (each is the exact reverse of the other, as their initials indicate), for the opposing tension of power that can be dramatized.
John Henry represents the post-war industrial hero confronting his adversary, whether man or machine, with physical power directly. Thus he was able to become the most familiar folk hero in Afro American lore, according to historian Laurence Levine.
High John represents the slave trickster hero, operating and surviving through secrecy, cunning, or mental power. Unlike his animal partner Brer Rabbit, High John has remained, at least for white audiences, a well kept secret, the dangers of publicizing slaves as tricksters preventing his stories from being told to whites well into the twentieth century. By juxtaposing these two figures here, Hamilton can present contrasting avenues to power for the oppressed (open action as opposed to subterfuge). At the same time, because they are working together as brothers in a common cause, she can show the greater strength that unified power brings to people seeking freedom.
Pearl, the god sister of both heroes, is not based on a legendary character as the male gods here are. "There are no famous black American women legends," explains Hamilton, "except for Harriet Tubman, none to the extent of John de Conquer or John Henry, and that's why I created her." Hamilton chooses to send Pearl forward into the world as a goddess, born of Mount Kenya, and thus she produces in Pretty Pearl a modern creation novel, for Pearl is prototypical, creates herself as she moves through time. And this allows Hamilton great latitude for exploring many possibilities of child growth and self creation, of motivation and desire, hope and potential.
In the beginning, however, what moves Pearl and the story into action is that as a god child, she yearns to "come down from on high," as the first sentence of the novel states. She is bored. Pearl, certainly a gifted and talented god child, plays harder than the other god children and beats them in all the games. In her growing power, she also sees a great deal. Looking down from the Mount, she sees the African humans captured and she becomes curious and concerned. But she does not see enough. She is puzzled. And so High John explains:
What you see be subtractin … a taking away … For de sum of a human or a god be similar. It de life and freedom he born with. But subtract de life, you got no kind of freedom. Subtract de freedom, you got no life.
That Hamilton has drawn her gods as similar to humans with distinct personalities (human personalities with folk histories and special traits) rather than as impersonalized principles or forces of power (sun, moon, or thunder) gives her the opportunity to comment on human foibles and strengths as she develops her theme of power, and of the wise use of power to produce the greatest human freedom. In Pearl's strong pride and competitive spirit lie the seeds of potential weakness—or strength, mixed as they are with her deep, caring spirit. "Awful. Awful!" she whispers about the horrors of slavery. But "all she could do was watch. She had little power to do much else and that made her unhappy" (21). She wants to follow the African humans to the New World and help them. And because John cares about her and sees she is ready to move on to the next plane, that of god woman, he gives her this chance.
Speaking of the legendary John de Conquer, who made his first appearance in printed form when Zora Neale Hurston published an essay in The American Mercury in the mid 1930's, Hamilton explained in 1975 that, while individual black slaves may not have had the chance or spirit to run … they conjured a being who released power unto them. High John gave them strength and made them laugh; he freed their spirit if not their bodies." (114) Eventually High John came to be a man in the legends and a "mighty man at that," says Hurston.
But he was not a natural man in the beginning. First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song … The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing-symbol was a drum-beat … He was treading the sweat-flavored clods of the plantation, crushing out his drum tunes, and giving out secret laughter. He walked on the winds of sound. Then he took on flesh after he got there … John de Conquer was walking the very winds that filled the sails of the slave ship. He followed over them like the albatross.
Hamilton adapts this same story framework in Pretty Pearl, with two important changes.
First, she makes Pearl the initial Hope-Bringer. John, for example, is shown at the beginning having a rather non-caring, isolationist attitude toward humans (and by extension toward slavery):
You shouldn't ought to go near them kind … Most de time, they be work for de lesser gods … I have no truck with them unless I has to … You can't fool around de human bein's too long else you commence actin' human yourself.
And he has no great desire to leave his comfortable life on the Mount with the other gods, their "godly minds and godly thoughts." Thus he accompanies Pearl to America primarily because he knows she needs his help, rather than because of any quest of his own. In other words, Hamilton makes family loyalty or affection (rather than any generalized benevolence or altruism) John's initial motivation, in order to dramatize the great potential or promise a child protagonist has for her mission.
Second, although Hamilton utilizes Hurston's albatross image in characterizing High John ("John de Conquer always had a giant black crow or raven," Hamilton says of the legends, "and Hurston may have elaborated on this image to produce an albatross"), she does not show him following the slaves here like an albatross (bird of luck or good omen for his people). Instead he is drawn as the great trickster he will become, when he transforms himself and Pearl into albatrosses, birds that no superstitious white slaver would ever shoot. Thus these sibling gods have safe passage to America, and the human slaves standing under such large, protective wing-spans see the African gods who will be their hope and power in the New World.
Once in America, John and Pearl shed their bird disguises and each helps the other to take the next step toward higher god plane. At her insistence that he do something for the slaves, he sends two of his spirits onto the plantations to whisper words of freedom and thus encourage slaves to "run." Thus de Conquer at this point emerges equally as Con-care. For his part, he instructs her in the tests she must pass to become god woman. She must learn patience so that she will grow strong enough not to need him when she journeys on, he tells her. She must lie in the "blood red southern soil," just as he does, for several centuries of human time (fifty years of human life being half a god day). She must learn to live with sorrow, sadness, even evil, before she will be ready to take action. And she must understand that even god power has its limits. "A shape of a thing," he explains, speaking of Hunger (which Pretty in her impatience has tried to beat to death) "will always be" (29). One could only act to change (diminish) the shape of it (hurt the shape of Hunger, so Hunger "felt the pinch").
Hamilton chooses to keep her mythology here complementary to West African beliefs of this his- torical period, when the universe was believed to be peopled with primary gods and secondary spirits, such as ghosts and witches, and when, according to folk historian Newbell Puckett, the gods were considered generally non-interfering and limited in the nature of their power. (No one god could do all things; expertise ran in certain lines of action.) By creating a family of gods, however, Hamilton can produce a unit of power (similar to the sibling unit of her Dustland trilogy) working for a common goal. John de Conquer is mental or spiritual power, first seeing the most of what will unfold for humans and then, as he tests himself for the next plane of god father, intervening to change the outcome. John Henry is physical power or action causing the future to unfold. Uniting them is Pearl, potential power or growing power, striving to be where the future unfolds, to see, to act, and to intervene, to become, in short, emotionally involved. Each power, actually a balance of power, will be necessary or crucial for Afro American survival and success, as the years (and the story) unfold.
Time travels past Civil War days and, where Pearl lies waiting, she sees a group of freed slaves called the Inside People hiding in a dark, secret part of the Georgia forest, and she knows where her quest will take her. John gives her two shifts to wear at this time, as he prepares her for her journey, thereby bringing to light a fourth member of this god family, Mother Pearl, a future self-within-a-self adult character or parent figure who materializes in Pearl's place when Pearl needs to become the adult, yet is conceptually not ready to do so. The shift of larger size, he tells her, will fit the "maw" woman part of her, for "god chil'ren they don't have no fathers or mothers like human chil'ren. They have they parts that they must fit. Part god woman, part god mother et cetera. Some don't never make de changeover. But you can call on de parts and rearrange de parts, too. Like a god woman mother' (37).
Placing the parent figure or "role" within Pearl rather than over her, as with a real parent, is perhaps Hamilton's most ingenious choice, at least an extremely important one, for to the extent that the child protagonist exercises power will the child reader be able to conceptualize his own potential power in the world. Pearl has more power than most child characters, she is so far from home and family on her journey and so long in human years from returning to the mountain. Having a powerful parent figure within helps to broaden even these powers, helps to provide great potential for inner (self) control. Her power is further extended when, to her excitement, she discovers that John will allow her to choose four ancient, invisible African spirits of his own to take with her on her journey and to bring to life whenever she chooses, as long as she keeps control. She has the power, he tells her. She needs only to use it wisely! "De knowledge of what power is, how to find it and fathom it, how to use it, will come. It will come from you, Pretty, for it inside you already" (39).
Pearl chooses a powerful six foot tall woodpecker, a dog with sharp curved tail for cutting trees (the Hodag), and just for "fun," she says, an ugly two-headed monster (the Hide Behind), with power to scare enemies, and finally a young man-spirit, Dwahro, who can feel, tell, and know better than most spirits, and who becomes really a fifth member of Pearl's family, something of a protective older brother for her in her journey. All four spirits are kept inside a root necklace John makes for her from a bush growing on his chest. She must wear the necklace in her travels, he tells her, and she must follow certain rules: she must promise it to no one, take it off for no one, frighten no one with it, unless for self defense, and never use it to hurt human children out of spite or anger. Also, she must keep the spirit power of the root necklace a secret. Thus Hamilton brings to life that aspect of the de Conquer legend, related to the African belief in root magic. "High John de Conquer went back to Africa," says Hurston, "but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time" (96).
Folklorists today credit the root of the marsh St. Johnswort (a folk charm against everything from rattlesnake bites to witches and nightmares) as being this "certain" plant, but Hurston does not name it directly. And Hamilton makes the same choice. Naming in folk tradition gives power, says Walter Ong, speaking of the "magical potency" of words for oral people. And "names do give human beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand … all other intellectual knowledge" (33). In the context of Afro American culture and experience, naming of the de Conquer root, believed to carry spiritual power and thus freedom from oppression, would release power to all people, a definite risk for the oppressed. As Pearl later tells the spirit Dwahro, "We goin where de secret is secret and will stay secret. The peoples is had enough of plantations and bosses and chains!" (66)
Hamilton's choice to depict the Afro American culture of reconstruction days brings with it the challenge of reproducing as many characteristics as possible of orally based thought. "Fully literate persons," according to Ong, "can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like" (31). By investigating almost every possible means of oral expression: song, proverb, chant, carefully planned recreation of historical African dialect, and carefully balanced formulaic saying—"High John de Con-care. Making get-up out of lie-down. And worth out of worthless. Making drumbeats of the soul. Making spirits grow" (43)—Hamilton manages to recreate a basically preliterate culture where everything was transmitted by sound. But because in this particular culture, survival also meant secrecy or whispered sound, she must also show that oral expression was the primary conduit for communicating survival strategies and that rhythmical pattern provided a primary aid for recall.
Hamilton therefore also makes use of other patterned concepts such as "listing," as it was used in folk tradition, to weave idea rhythmically through the tapestry of story. In Chapter Six, Dwahro teaches Pearl about the forest and also explains why the forest is "so perfect a place to live" (thus helping her understand how the Inside People survive so well there) when he lists trees and items made from trees. Listing was a particular sort of "aggregative" or clustering device, says Ong (99) that, like the formulaic expression relied on balance and pattern to aid recall. And it also relied to some extent on another practice, that of "redundancy" or "repetition of the just said" (40), a device to keep both speaker and hearer together, and one Hamilton applies liberally throughout the book.
In Chapter Three, for example, Hamilton's repetition of the word "forest" and certain phrases about the forest seems at first glance to do what such description of setting or place might traditionally do in any novel, establish the mood, introduce an important symbol for the story, and illuminate the theme:
The forest loomed closer. It was immense and darkly still … The forest ahead was like a black night rolling over upland (47) … She felt the silence around her; noticed the shade … The forest sparkled and was magical … (54) The forest was pleasantly dim … She understood that the forest was not only alive, living, it knew no hard times. It knew no wrong, no war. But it recognized the sound and frenzy of kinds, human, good and bad. It kept the symbol of them in its sighing. The forest was. Once it had been all of Georgia, she realized … Men carved huge lands in the forest. They brought in black Africans to suffer the hardships of laboring from dawn to dusk, while they rose higher in self-esteem and grew rich …
The forest was, even after war had passed and the reconstruction of life into a new order of living had begun. Some said times would be better for the darker peoples. This did not happen at once. Yet the forest was, still (55).
‘Was once,’ said Pearl softly now …
‘Was, is once again, and always was,’ replied Dwahro.
All traditional literary objectives are met here. The reader perceives in the many details the mood of mystery and power. The forest is also established as the symbol of ultimate power of life force, beyond human, beyond even god power ("It knew no wrong") the same symbolic use, in fact, that Cooper makes of water in The Dark Is Rising (Atheneum, 1973)
And the Book taught Will here the patterns of survival against malevolence … and showed him how water was the one element that could in some measure defy all magic; for moving water would tolerate no magic for evil or good, but would wash it away as if it had never been made.
Hamilton's use of the forest operates in a slightly different way, however, rooted as it is in Afro-American culture. Whereas Cooper's water defies all magic, the forest here is magic, is endowed with human presence, a belief based on West African animism, according to Puckett, which often locates the soul or spirit in the "haunted tree" (115-116). Thus the primal power of the forest is both beyond good and evil, and also immersed in both, for it holds them both, as gods and humans hold potential for both in themselves. And that is the reason the forest power can be harnessed for the cause of human justice and freedom or for injustice. In the case of the former, Mother Pearl in Chapter Five will harness the power of the poplar tree (a tree she describes as a "woman and yellow" because "she's so old") to tie up the bandits who threaten to kill them. In the case of the latter, Pearl has already seen the same tree, the poplar, in Chapter Two, holding the charred shape that Pearl recognizes as a lynching.
Hamilton's repeated phrase "the forest" and her repetition of the word "was" (similar to the "be" function of black dialect which expresses both past and future time) therefore has thematic implications for the continual power of the forest as life force to reproduce, grow, or replenish itself, or to be, no matter what evil (or good) is visited upon it. But repetition of words goes beyond traditional literary or "textual" meaning here, serves an additional function, one especially related to oral peoples who could not backloop to reread (or cause the teller to retell). The reader or listener (especially the child reader) exposed to a passage filled with such redundancy is allowed to move ahead in the telling of the story at the same time that he is internalizing complex thematic patterns that spiral through the passage, or in this case, the entire story.
It is significant, for example, that Chapter Sixteen, the third chapter from the ending of the book begins with the words, "The great forest was," thus reiterating the phrasing of Chapter Three, at the same time it extends the theme of power being used to enlarge the quality of human life:
The great forest was. Once it had been all of Georgia. Now it was much, much less and it would become ever less. And the forest was still … where once there had been a Freedom Lane cleared from the forest … Once there had been paths (266) … The great forest was when there had been human life, once; there would be human life there again someday … But now there was not even a human echo … and all … was turning back to nature. No one could own the forest.
In other words, Hamilton indicates that power and freedom can be reconciled if power and resources are shared. Then no one is oppressed. Promise, a place where each toiled for the good of all, is modeled on the concept of African village life as well as Cherokee values that Old Canoe expresses when he says concerning the forest, "No land is owned by any one kind. No man on earth is owned by any other" (139). And that is the reason that when Promise was replicated by the Inside People in the Outside World, it became Success. It was not based on self aggrandizement, selfish motives, or unwise use of power.
Chapters Three and Thirteen, as Hamilton has placed them in perfectly balanced distance from the beginning and ending of the book, delineate her moral vision of the forest and stand as structural undergirding for the entire novel, composed as it is of eighteen chapters in a four part setting, each part being one segment of Pearl's journey down from the mountain and over the long human "Trail Home," and each part revealing a different "being" of Pearl or a different stage in the growth process that in turn corresponds to each of the settings.
In Chapters One and Two, Pearl, god child of Mount Kenya, journeys to America, where on a Georgian hillside she receives her instruction from High John in how she will carry out her mission of helping the slaves. And taken together, these two chapters serve as virtual "map" for the entire journey,2 introducing as they do the major characters, the motive for the quest, as well as foreshadowing the potential dangers of innocence that await the quester.
In Chapters Three through Six, High John releases Pearl to her mission, and she enters the forest, stretching with her two shifts and her two parts of Pretty and Mother to fit the woman plane, to test her strength and fulfill her quest. In Chapters Seven through Fourteen, Pearl reaches the deepest part of the forest, the hidden settlement of the Inside People, Promise. Here emotion supercedes reason, as she forgets she is god child and neglects her responsibilities. First she refuses to give up her place to Mother Pearl when they enter Promise and Mother's role of Maw-Woman is needed, so that they become irrevocably split and Pearl no longer has her adult part within. Then later she lets out the Hide-Behind to scare the human children and show her "magical importance."
Finally in Chapters Fifteen through Eighteen, Pearl leaves the forest for the Outside World. Having paid the price of her forgetfulness, of putting the Inside world in jeopardy, and cast out of the Edenic forest place to become human child, she rises to the challenge of becoming or growing into, by the end of the book, a responsible young adult.
Hamilton's four part structure and characterization of Pearl, the precocious god child, the god child struggling to be human, the god forsaken child, and finally the emergent adult, can be understood most clearly if viewed alongside Piaget's analysis of adolescent thinking. And his analysis, in turn may help to explain how children may initially develop interest in this quest of a god child, how they can say as Mark, 11, listening to Chapter One:
If you're an adult, it's so easy. But if you're a kid, you have to do something hard to get more power. Like they have to prove themselves good when they're young, so when they grow up they'll be good rulers.
In The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence, Inhelder and Piaget, speak of the age of preadolescence, 11-13 years (Pearl as human child in disguise is said to be between 10-12 years of age) as the beginning of formal thinking ("maturation of cerebral structures" allowing the child to begin to think hypothetically, among other things). This "indefinite extension of powers of thought," according to Piaget,
is conducive to a failure to distinguish between the ego's new and unpredicted capabilities and the social or cosmic universe to which they are applied. In other words, the adolescent goes through a phase in which he attributes an unlimited power to his own thoughts so that the dream of a glorious future or of transforming the world through Ideas … seems to be … an effective action which in itself modifies the empirical world.
Pearl begins in Part One by expecting her brother to transform the world instantly, through the idea of Justice. "So why don't you free them and take them back home" (18) she asks him as, once in America, they lie for a hundred years watching the African slaves. High John, speaking of the wider "cosmic universe" to which such ideas have to be applied says, "It will get written. But it got to unfold some more" (19).
Pearl is not willing to accept the idea of limited god capability at this point or his idea that "when you start something, you must know how to finish it" (29). "If I had his power," she says in her impatience (and her innocence), "I sure would use it now!" (19) she does not have his power; she needs to grow into it, he knows. And growth, in Piaget's view, is not purely an "addition process …" of "one new learned piece of behavior or information on top of another." It is a "decentering" process, a "continual refocusing of perspective" (345), and objectivity, the opposite of ecocentricity, demands differentiation, demands coordination of multiple perspectives, takes the restructuring or accommodating of these perspectives to the original point of view.
Pearl's perspective about power, her power, John's, that of the gods, that of humans, undergoes such a restructuring as the novel progresses. Through observing in her dream in Chapter Five what Mother Pearl does in her place when bandits threaten their lives, she learns the many different forms of power that can be used to survive as well as to effect justice: the power of knowledge, of action, of subterfuge, as well as of magic.
Once severed from Mother Pearl in Promise, however, Pearl loses her god woman future part (and her self-control). With knowledge of power no longer within, she must begin learning and discovering as all humans "from experience" (157). Awareness comes more slowly, the human way. "What I done? What I done?" (202) she whispers over and over after she has let out the Hide Behind. "What it mean? … Did I forget something?" (203) Memory is dimmer now for Pearl and so is her power, it can be seen, when the Hodag leaps out before she can command it and begins senselessly slicing up the forest trees.
The enormity of Pearl's deed or misdeed, occurring in Chapter Eleven, is implicitly seen through the position Hamilton chooses for it within the story structure, following as it does three chapters which describe the settlement of Promise as a social contract. Chapter Eight provides a history of Promise and the sacrifices the people have made to insure their safety. Chapter Nine dramatizes the concept of work in Promise, how each person toils for the good of all. Chapter Ten juxtaposes the concepts of work and self defense that operate in this settlement. The elderly "See-Alls" of the forest are described here working long hours safeguarding Promise, watching for intruders from the outside world. Dwahro is seen working hard entertaining the children. Even the youngest children work alongside Mother Pearl (sweeping, sewing, carrying food to the field workers) to maintain safety and further the well-being of all. Thus Pearl's letting out the Hide Behind to scare the children, even deliberately feeding it at this point, enabling it to grow in power, violates the spirit of trust upon which the whole social structure of Promise is built.
Her god child behavior, in fact, at this point falls below anything a human child does in the story, for while she is playing at a grand mission, they continue to work hard to reach the same goals—survival and freedom. Finally in Chapter Twelve, Pearl begins to see the difference between being the god child High John had expected her to be and the god child she had allowed herself to become. "Wish I was you!" she thinks as she watches the children "playing around their work … Thought I was, but I ain't" (206). As John Henry enters the novel at last in Chapter Thirteen, to present to the people of Promise knowledge of the world and all they are missing by remaining in Promise, he finds his sister sick and not-so-pretty.
She continues to languish, begins to shrink as god child, until in Chapter Fifteen, a pivotal chapter, the god family meets together for the first time in the forest. Here High John, having now attained full god power as "Head God," confronts Pearl with her lapse, reasons with her, spells it out in hard words that conjure in their power, so that she remembers at last what she has forgotten and why: "I was just … livin' like a free chile, an' I forgets all about de god child. I just forgot everythin" (259). But even though Pearl finally gains insight enough to realize her mistake and even though High John admits that in his own limitations he too has erred: "I thought you was ready for you own self before you were, prob'ly" (256), he says; still she cannot go back to what she was. It is too late. Pretty-not-so-pretty now has become all too human to remain a god. John can save her from the sickly god child she has become, however, can enable her to become human, even to forget she was ever a god child, so that she does not grieve for her loss. And he does. Soon Pretty is pretty once more and happily unaware that she has traded immortality for humanity.
Hamilton's choice to create her characters as humanized, fallible, even falling gods here serves to define her theme of power and its best use for human freedom as no other character type could do. For gods at their best, she implies, are like the strongest, wisest, and most powerful humans, born with greater knowledge, thus having greater responsibility and finally fewer freedoms. They are not perfect, as Mother Pearl explains to Dwahro in Chapter Five, just before she puts the bandits to death: "cause de gods in whose image you made be not always good—we try, though … And will not stand for deliberate badness" (81). (Creating folk-gods as her characters here also enables Hamilton to tell children about some not-so-pretty-parts of American history and to enable children to see the Afro American hero victorious in the battle against injustice, and as well placed in his cause as any Grimm fairy tale hero.)
If the gods are not always good, humans formed in their image are similarly not always good. Yet as Mother also says, "we always great." And great does not just mean powerful in Hamilton's scheme. It means wise use of power, or responsibility. Humans at their best work at being gods. Gods at their best work at helping humans, whether they are flying protectively over them as birds, killing bandits as a warning to the lawless, hammering steel to build railroads, or carrying a noon meal to the workers. At their worst (or most foolish), gods play or waste power at human games, trying as John Henry to beat an unbeatable machine, or as Pearl, to scare those less powerful than they. And this is the point of High John's rule that Pearl must not scare children with the root spirits.
Scaring children is wasting power. Pearl forgets that she is superior because of her power, forgets she does not need to prove her greatness. In fact, paradoxically, god power is so potent, it must operate in secrecy (and as has been seen, even its name must remain secret). Gods have no need of operating otherwise. Pearl forgets she has such power, and in forgetting it, she loses it. What she must do then is discover the human "will" power that is still within her, not magical, but still important for helping the people as her caring spirit first led her to do. And this human power can best be seen in Piaget's concept of "personality" or as he defines it, the "decentered ego."
Decentering or the path from adolescence to the true beginning of adulthood, according to Piaget,
takes place simultaneously in thought processes and in social relationships. But the focal point of the decentering process is the entrance into the occupational world or the beginning of serious professional training. The adolescent becomes an adult when he undertakes a real job. It is then that he is transformed from an idealistic reformer into an achiever.
Pearl finds her closest peer relationship in Promise with the boy Josias who teaches her about the settlement, the people, their work, and the ginseng plant, the major crop the Inside people grow to trade with the outside world. The plant, Pearl sees, is not as miraculous as the de Conquer root, just as humans cannot be as magical as gods. Still it is "mysterious" in its "healing power."
Pearl's learning about the plant finally leads to her choosing the job of "sang hunter" when she becomes "decentered" adult in the outside world. For the sang plant is what draws her so strongly back to her own god child roots, lost to her now in human life but found once again (remembered best) in another hidden Inside place, "deep in the forest" of the American mid-west "that was left … She loved the silent, damp sang places. She found them and she walked in them as though walking inside a sacred place. She felt most close to nature then. She felt her de Conquer root most strongly there" (303). And Pearl assumes the role of storyteller for her people at this time too, a role that allows her to use her pride to its best advantage in order to bolster her caring spirit. "Pretty stood," says Hamilton, as the book ends:
She was tall, grown very tall for her age. There was something about her that made all the inside folks look at her solemnly, respectfully. She held herself most proud. But she held herself inward, and they were never sure just what would come out of her, how she would begin. She walked serenely back and forth in front of them … ‘One long time, she began, de god came down from on high … Came down from Mount Kenya on a clear day … Best start over … One long time, Pretty Pearl came down from on high’ … She didn't know how she could make up such tales. But she could and they made her laugh inside. ‘Be a god chile then.’
The greatest experiment of Pretty Pearl is the character of Pearl in all her changing lights—the so promising child protagonist who falls when she should have risen, plays when she should have worked, and who does work at last playing out her own story as she tells it. And the novel's great success is also Pearl, this paradoxical character with four part presence who struts playfully over the last pages to reveal at last what her quest became and also the meaning of the book: that only for the child in a state of emergent adolescence (with her pride of confidence in unlimited god power) could such a quest be set in motion. And only by others working with her could it be completed, others that Hamilton has linked together as members of a family: John de Conquer, head of this god family and all-knowing spirit, Mother Pearl, John's female counterpart in adult wisdom and patience, John Henry, the prodigal son who leaps knowingly into the human condition, Black Salt, the human god father of an extended family, an entire community, Promise, whose members include the old, the young, the orphaned, the Cherokee, and finally also the newest "adopted" members, Dwahro and Pearl.
Thus the family unit becomes the spiritual human bond, the Power that connects all forms and shapes—god, spirit, human, even plant, as when the poplar tree bends its branches to the will of Mother Pearl's plan or the ginseng bends toward the de Conquer root, feels or senses its force, "recognizes a kinship to the strength in the sang" (164). And family is thus also the Power that is necessary to complete Pearl's quest, for it takes each member of this family working together to bring about such a great goal. High John brings knowledge, caution, a balanced cosmic view, an all-seeing ability to tell the future and make spirits grow. John Henry brings the ability to risk, to spur the people to leave Promise when they learn the railroad will soon destroy this garden-in-the-forest Paradise. Mother Pearl brings untiring work and knowledge of how things work. Dwahro brings playful spirit lifting spirits. Old Canoe and Black Salt bring strong but caring leadership.
Finally and of greatest importance, Pearl brings herself, gives herself to the people, comes down from on high, falls into humanness, to complete the quest. And this is the reason her fall is really success and not failure and why the novel is one of hope rather than despair. For Pearl can help the people best, it turns out if she becomes one of them and remains one, spreading the luck of the de Conquer root and handing down the stories of her god family, stories told magically in a dream by Mother Pearl just before Mother returns with High John to Mount Kenya. Only then can African god spirit really become Afro American one, for only can a former god child form such a bridge between sky and earth.
The story comes full circle at the end. Transformed once again into albatrosses, John de Conquer and now Mother Pearl, in the place of Pretty, are last seen flying toward a ship returning to Africa and carrying not black slaves this time but black seamen. Pearl does not return, her human future taking root now in American soil. De Conquer whispers to her as he goes, "Now you take the human and the life part and be happy" (294). And she is happy, for she sees only a small part of what John Henry, in his great adult awareness, knows.
"Remember me," says John Henry to Pretty, as the book nears an end. And she does, as she tells the story later of this character in all his boastful humor, his grandiose size, his tragic dilemma, his love of the human condition, his acceptance that he cannot at the last change his nature. "Say I wasn't good and I wasn't bad," says John Henry to Pearl in her dreaming state. "Tell ‘em a man ain't nothin’ but a man" (300).
The strong portrait of John Henry, perhaps the strongest of all characters for the adult reader, is what confirms Hamilton's words that, at some future point, she may begin writing primarily for adults. In fact, with the rich adult cast of characters here, the protagonist who takes the complete journey from childhood to adulthood, the vast array of folk traditions, the panoramic historical background, there is good reason to wonder if this is a children's book. "Don't miss Pretty Pearl !" says Geraldine Wilson. "The book will provide you with magical spiritual moments … it will introduce you to some very serious African American ancestors and cultural archetypes who inhabit a great history we should all know much better" (17). But who is the "you" she speaks of? The adult? The child? Both I think, for unlike many children's books, Pretty Pearl is a book that is not just for children, nor primarily for adults. And that, I believe, is the best children's book a child could have, a book that goes beyond being good and may ultimately be seen as great. It is a book that children can enter and learn about themselves and the complexities of the adult part growing within themselves. It is also one that adults can enter and learn more about themselves at the same time as they see more about the complexities of the child's world.
Good children's books, it seems to me, books like those by Cleary, Byers, O'Dell, Lindgren, Keats, and Lobel, show children what they are like now, and because they fit children so well at certain ages, they are easily seen as children's books. They put glasses on children's eyes at certain stages, give them 20/20 vision so that they see better how they are "fitting" now. (Not so good books do the same thing but in less challenging ways. And often the appeal for children is that they have confirmed for them too quickly and easily, as with cartoons and comic books, what they would like to be rather than what they really are.)
But the better than good books, I think, the best, perhaps the great ones, are those that expand with children as children grow, that fit children in different ways at different ages. They are the books that children grow with, rather than grow out of or into. And the reason may be that the writers of such books explore the adult-child relationship in creative ways, as Hamilton does, and authors like Cooper, L'Engle, White, Patterson, de Brunhoff, and Sendak do also. (And that may be why adults find them so intriguing too.)
Such writers put binoculars over glasses at all ages, give children better than 20/20 vision, so that they see what they are now as well as what they have potential to be. For they sense that human children, like Hamilton's god children, have adult parts within to call on when they need special power. No child would want to wear binoculars all the time. But at special times, such books as The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl help all readers see with clearest vision what children's literature at its best can be.
But perhaps the final words here should not rest with me the adult, nor with my speculations about children, for as Jill May says, and I agree, "The adult critic can never be sure that any book will appeal to children until the book has been shared with … children" (7). And so here is Vinny, at 13, who began listening to the book in puzzlement, asking "Who is Pearl? What is she? Are they really gods, or what?" but ended by saying as he saw Mother Pearl flying away:
Pretty Pearl's soul is now going back to the mountain. The god part went up. The human part stayed down. Only one part of her became god, the part that had already passed. Like your childhood is now a spirit, like a god. Your child part of you is somewhere else in a different time zone. It's the past. Cause you're not that anymore. You grow up.
1. Conversation with Virginia Hamilton, December 2, 1984. Unless otherwise indicated, additional quotations of Hamilton refer to this date.
2. See Perry Nodelman, "Text as Teacher: The Beginning of Charlotte's Web," Children's Literature 13. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985: 109-127, for a discussion of cognitive mapping in relation to the early chapters of White's novel. It can be argued that the introductory chapters of Pretty Pearl are functioning in a similar way.
Apseloff, Marilyn. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton," Children's Literature in Education, 14 (Winter, 1983): 210.
Hamilton, Virginia. "High John Is Risen Again," The Horn Book Magazine (April, 1975): 114.
Inhelder, Bärbel, and Jean Piaget. The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books, 1958.
Kuznets, Lois. "Susan Cooper: A Reply." Signposts to Criticism of Children's Literature. Ed. Robert Bator. Chicago: American Library Association, 1983: 109-113.
Leach, Maria, ed. Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Volume Two: J-Z. Chicago: Funk and Wagnalls, 1950.
Levine, Laurence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness; Afro American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
May, Jill, ed. Children and Their Literature: A Readings Book. West Lafayette, Indiana: ChLA Publications, 1983.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen, 1982.
Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1926.
Sims, Rudine. Shadow and Substance: Afro American Experience in Contemporary Children's Fiction. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1982.
Wilson, Geraldine. Review of The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 15 (1984): 17-18.
PLAIN CITY (1993)
Cathryn M. Mercier (review date January-February 1994)
SOURCE: Mercier, Cathryn M. Review of Plain City, by Virginia Hamilton. Five Owls 8, no. 3 (January-February 1994): 66.
Floyd Cooper's jacket illustration [for Plain City ] catches Buhlaire-Marie Sims in a characteristic moment: her sharp eyes pierce their subject with confidence even as her lip-biting hints at the fragility of self-doubt running just below her surface; she holds her "fuzzy-gold halo of Rasta hair" with proud defiance even as her slim, white-jumpsuited body twists in question. Just as January gray and shadowy whites background this portrait, so the "twelve going on twenty" Buhlaire risks losing herself to find herself in the overcast of her "back time." In her, Virginia Hamilton creates a complex, introspective character, a loved child who feels forgotten, a forlorn adolescent emerging from the protective cocoon of family.
At school, Buhlaire operates within a solitary world. She feels rejected by others because she is a "Water House" child, because more respected families gossip about her mother Bluezy Sims, a night club singer and fan dancer. Yet when others reach out to her, Buhlaire swats them away. In order to maintain the hard-won independence that allows her to walk through the bare winter landscape, she cannot risk establishing the very connection with others for which she yearns. Hamilton conveys this tension in Buhlaire's life by interweaving direct, often lyrical narration of events with Buhlaire's internal monologue, her commentary on herself and her world. As a result, the reader operates both within Buhlaire's immediate perceptions and outside their confines, where some objectivity may be possible.
The strain of being inside and outside plagues Buhlaire. Though inside the Sims family and cared for in Bluezy's absence by her uncles Sam and Buford and aunts Babe and Digna, Buhlaire knows the "vanilla" in one parent sets her apart. Originally content to embrace the nurturing environment of this family, Buhlaire begins to question the truths she has been told: Did her father really die in Vietnam? Where is he? Must her mother be gone so much? As Buhlaire's inner quest begins, her journeys outside take on new peril. Hamilton carefully charts these journeys to their surprising, engaging intersection.
In finding her father, Buhlaire secures a known place in her family, yet she also witnesses his mental illness and homelessness. In discovering him, she must also acknowledge his inevitable rejection of her and his inability to care for her. Buhlaire slowly gives up romantic notions of her "dad" to know her disappointment in him; yet she also claims her profound ability to love him. This newfound clarity allows her to face honestly her ambivalent feelings toward her frequently absent mother. Her place in her family enables her to accept friendship from a classmate, and his friendship grounds her so she can "let go of the resentment at her mom's leaving."
Hamilton imbues Buhlaire's voice with individuality and strength. While a single plot coincidence interrupts the realism achieved in this novel, Plain City offers readers a new look at the evolution of identity.
A RING OF TRICKSTERS: ANIMAL TALES FROM AMERICA, THE WEST INDIES, AND AFRICA (1997)
Martha V. Parravano (review date January-February 1998)
SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Barry Moser. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 1 (January-February 1998): 83.
Virginia Hamilton's latest folktale collection [A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa ]—which echoes in size, format, and layout When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing and is also lavishly illustrated by Moser—gathers trickster tales from Africa that have made their way to America and the West Indies via the slave trade. The eleven chosen tales are, with a few exceptions, not terribly memorable, although Hamilton's vivid and distinctive language is: these are stories to be read aloud ("Guess is guess, and who is who. Guess who didn't sell a thing the whole season? Howsomever, maybe Bruh Wolf learned something about a rabbit: Bruh Flopears is always asking for help. Then, he helps himself!"). More troubling, however, are the unenlightening introductions to the three sections into which the tales are divided ("The language in the African section may seem more complex. Actually it is a more formal sounding translation. The infinitive ‘to be’ construction harks back to the early translations into English") and the surprising lack of specific source notes for individual tales. All in all, A Ring of Tricksters is an impressively produced piece of bookmaking, with content less carefully constructed than its packaging.
SECOND COUSINS (1998)
Bonnie L. Raasch (review date March-April 1999)
SOURCE: Raasch, Bonnie L. Review of Second Cousins, by Virginia Hamilton. Book Report 17, no. 5 (March-April 1999): 57.
Cousins Cammy and Elodie, both twelve, are looking forward to the summer family reunion [in Second Cousins ]. But they're haunted by the death of their cousin Patty Ann, who drowned the summer before while saving El from the swollen Little River. Cammy's parents have split up and El is living at Cammy's until her mother returns from a season of picking crops. Just before the reunion, Cammy's cousins from New York show up at Cammy's Dad's house. Cammy is devastated when she finds out the truth that one of these cousins is actually her half sister, a product of her father's affair while her parents are separated. Even though the story is slow to start, it finally develops into an acceptable family portrayal. At times the nicknames and relationships are somewhat confusing, but the main characters are distinctive. The spirited Gram Tut, although sometimes living in the past in her thoughts, is the glue that binds the family together. Suggest this sequel to Cousins (Philomel Books, 1990) only to readers who want to know more about the Coleman family.
Kathleen T. Horning (review date January-February 2000)
SOURCE: Horning, Kathleen T. Review of Bluish, by Virginia Hamilton. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 75.
The complexities of friendship among three fifth-grade girls are eloquently explored in [Bluish, ] this short, accessible novel that effectively interweaves two strands of narrative to provide external and internal layers. Ten-year-old Dreenie, new to an "arty-darty" magnet school in upper Manhattan, desperately wants a best friend. A brash but insecure classmate, Tuli, quickly latches onto Dreenie and her warm, lively family, particularly her smart-alecky younger sister, who enjoys Tuli's frequent after-school visits. But Dreenie is irritated by Tuli's faux-Spanish accent, and she finds herself drawn instead to another classmate, Natalie, whom the kids have nicknamed Bluish. Dreenie secretly keeps a journal in which she writes down her observations about this unusual classmate. Natalie has leukemia, and initially Dreenie find herself morbidly fascinated with her pale, blue-tinted skin, her wheelchair, the skullcap she wears over her bald head. As Dreenie gets to know her better, however, she finds that other things fascinate her about Natalie as well: her sense of humor, original turns of phrase, generosity, anger, honesty, and a family life that is different from Dreenie's own. Interestingly, it is these same qualities in Tuli that irritate Dreenie, although she doesn't realize it until Natalie unknowingly points it out to her. Hamilton is right on target with her depiction of the speech and mannerisms of fifth graders, as seen through her third-person narrative. In addition, we get glimpses into a fifth-grade psyche, as Dreenie reveals her innermost thoughts and feelings through her journal entries about Bluish, which actually reveal much more about Dreenie than they do about her friend.
THE GIRL WHO SPUN GOLD (2000)
Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (review date September-October 2000)
SOURCE: Marantz, Ken, and Sylvia Marantz. Review of The Girl Who Spun Gold, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Five Owls 15, no. 4 (September-October 2000): 17.
A mother boasting to a greedy king manages to make her daughter a queen, but when the time arrives to spin thread into the promised gold, the frightened queen must depend on Lit'mahn, the West Indian version of Rumpelstiltskin, for help [in The Girl Who Spun Gold ]. In a lively telling with a West Indian lilt, Hamilton describes Quashiba's first happy year with Big King. But then he locks her in a room and demands that she fill it with golden cloth, "Else you'll stay cooped up in here forever and a year!" Enter the grotesque Lit'mahn, with his promise to make "golden things" there for her. But of course there is a catch. She must guess his name within three nights, or he will "make you tiny, just like me" and carry her off "to live in my shade."
Although we know the eventual outcome, the suspense mounts as the king insists on two more rooms filled, and all Quashiba's guesses of names prove wrong. Finally, it is the king's report of his strange encounter while hunting that gives her the answer she needs to best Lit'mahn. "POP-OP he goes in a million bitty flecks of gold that flowed into the night and disappeared." Big King must apologize; it takes three long years before Quashiba forgives him so they can live happily ever after. And Lit'mahn, some say, still comes near. "And when is that? Don't cha know! Each time, they say, when his story be told."
Although the telling is in colloquial Caribbean, the Dillons have chosen to visually represent the story in an elegant, exotic style in order to emphasize the magical quality as well as the majesty of the events. The paintings are reminiscent of those in their Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Dial, 1976) by Margaret Musgrove in the way the figures are spatially related and in some of the exciting patterns in the fabrics. But here, in keeping with the golden theme of the tale, gold leaf is used extensively, on the end-papers, to set the illuminated letters on each text page, to frame each scene, and to add to the items being magically manufactured. There are also bits of sculpture with African roots, while the villain's head resembles a carved mask. But it is the dominance of patterns that sets the tone of swirling mystery in their inventive variety. Headdresses, robes, rugs, even plants all vie with one another in their attractive complexity. In contrast is the polished ebony of faces and hands, helping convey by gesture and expression the emotions of the protagonists. This perfect match of words and images stands on its own, as well as offering opportunities for comparison with other versions of the tale, such as Paul O. Zelinsky's Rumpelstiltskin (E. P. Dutton, 1986).
Susan Raben (review date January-February 2001)
SOURCE: Raben, Susan. Review of The Girl Who Spun Gold, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Library Talk 14, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 46.
Rumpelstiltskin, move over and make room for Lit'mahn Bittyun. Hamilton tells a glorious West Indian version of the classic tale [in The Girl Who Spun Gold ]. After a year and a day, Big King expects his beautiful, young wife, Quashiba, to spin three rooms of thread into gold. Lit'mahn promises to spin the gold and gives Quashiba three nights in which to guess his name, or she will become tiny and be carried off to live with him. This charming version is told in a lilting island dialect that's easy to read, but the real glory of this book is in the illustrations. The Dillons have outdone themselves, creating illustrations worthy of a Caldecott medal. Using metallic paint and an abundance of gold, as befits the tale, they've given the story an atmosphere of mystery, yet what stands out in each picture are the expressive faces of the people. They have a regal bearing, while Lit'mahn, with his sharp teeth and bulging eyes, is appropriately menacing. This story would be useful in a study that compares similar tales from around the world, but it easily stands alone as a beautifully rendered folktale that will engage all readers who love a good story. Highly Recommended.
TIME PIECES: THE BOOK OF TIMES (2002)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 4 November 2002)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of Time Pieces: The Book of Times, by Virginia Hamilton. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 4 (4 November 2002): 85.
[Time Pieces, t]his uneven work from the late Hamilton juxtaposes a contemporary framework story about young Valena, during the summer before she enters sixth grade, with a number of interconnected "‘reckons,’ … stories told of past times" that fill in some of the history of how her family came to Ohio. Valena's mother, Harriet, relates these tales of times past, which at their best recall the mythic and inspirational qualities of the author's The People Could Fly —especially the story of tiny Tunny Maud, who is brought to Rothford Plantation (one "Occupant," as Harriet calls the captives held on the plantation, believes that Tunny Maud is a Pygmy from Batswa). Tunny Maud dances "to the leaf shadows in the forest" and "could move on her hands as well as her feet." Later, the tiny woman figures prominently in a reckon about Harriet's father, Graw Luke, who crosses the Ohio River with his mother and makes a pilgrimage to Maud Free, a town established by Tunny Maud (who, with the help of her master's son, escaped to freedom). But the contemporary story used to set up these few tales comes across as sketchy, especially in contrast with the reckons, which are polished like prized gems that are passed down from one generation to the next. Ages 10-14.
BRUH RABBIT AND THE TAR BABY GIRL (2003)
Susan Dove Lempke (review date January-February 2004)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by James Ransome. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 1 (January-February 2004): 94-5.
The old trickster tale of the thieving rabbit who gets stuck to a tar baby receives a fresh retelling from the late Virginia Hamilton [in Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl ]. Her version uses the phrasings and rhythm of Gullah speech: "Rabbit, him, is tricky-some—about to fool a body and not do a lick of work himself." Lazy Bruh Rabbit relies on Wolf's hard work for his food, living off of his corn one year and his peanuts the next. In frustration, Bruh Wolf makes a "scarey-crow," but Rabbit isn't fooled and knocks it over. Bruh Wolf has better success when he builds his next scarecrow out of tar, fashioned to look like a girl rabbit. Bruh Rabbit is offended when the Tar Baby Girl won't answer him: "Girl! Speak to me! If you don't, I'll knock you. Knock you with my right paw, and you'll think it's thunder!" Bruh Rabbit gets all four paws stuck to the tar baby, and even gets his nose stuck when he tries to bite her, but he triumphs in the end by outwitting Bruh Wolf once more. Hamilton's retelling is zesty and conversational, making a great read-aloud. Ransome uses watercolors to depict the green farm and countryside by "dayclean" and by moonlight. Though wearing human clothing, the animal characters are otherwise realistically depicted, Bruh Wolf, for instance, looking like an actual wolf even as he's stirring a bucket of tar. Hamilton and Ransome together have created a funny, satisfying version of a favorite old Southern story.
THE PEOPLE COULD FLY: THE PICTURE BOOK (2004)
Hazel Rochman (review date November 2004)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The People Could Fly: The Picture Book, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Book Links 14, no. 2 (November 2004): 46.
Gr. 3-7—The stirring title story in the late Virginia Hamilton's 1985 collection of American black folktales [The People Could Fly ] is an unforgettable slave escape fantasy, retold here in terse, lyrical prose that stays true to the oral tradition Hamilton knew from her family and her scholarly research. Leo and Diane Dillon's large paintings are magic realism at its finest, with clear portraits showing individuals and the enduring connections between them. The images show mass cruelty close up, but the faces of the characters Hamilton names are always distinct, even in the packed hold of the slave ships, when those "who could fly" lost their wings. Laboring in the cotton field, Sarah and her baby are whipped by the overseer. When elderly Toby helps them escape, the rhythmic paintings show people flying to freedom, joining hands together in the sky. Each one is an individual, exquisitely (and differently) dressed in traditional African garb, an inspiration to those left behind, who "had only their imaginations to set them free." A final portrait shows Hamilton in kente cloth smiling above a loving family at home. This special picture-book story will be told and retold everywhere.
Publishers Weekly (review date 22 November 2004)
SOURCE: Review of The People Could Fly: The Picture Book, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 47 (22 November 2004): 58.
Resplendent, powerful paintings by these two-time Caldecott-winning artists bring new life to the title story from the late Hamilton's 1985 collection, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Making dramatic use of shadow and light, Leo and Diane Dillon (whose half-tone illustrations also graced the original volume) ably convey the tale's simultaneous messages of oppression and freedom, of sadness and hope. "They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic," opens the narrative, as the full-color artwork reveals elegant, beautifully clothed individuals with feathered wings serenely ascending into the sky. On the following spread, images of the Middle Passage set a fittingly somber tone, depicting Africans who "were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. Too crowded, don't you know." The picturebook format allows room for the relationship to develop between Sarah, who labors in the cotton fields with an infant strapped to her back, and Toby, the "old man," who utters the magic African words that give her flight. Toby helps others take flight as well (a stunning image shows seemingly hundreds linking hands and taking to the skies)—and eventually does so himself, sadly leaving some of the captives "who could not fly" behind to "wait for a chance to run." Art and language that are each, in turn, lyrical and hard-hitting make an ideal pairing in this elegant volume that gracefully showcases the talent of its creators. All ages.
WEE WINNIE WITCH'S SKINNY: AN ORIGINAL AFRICAN AMERICAN SCARE TALE (2004)
Betsy Hearne (review date September-October 2004)
SOURCE: Hearne, Betsy. Review of Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Barry Moser. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 5 (September-October 2004): 567-68.
Hamilton took folklore seriously, and this posthumously published original story [Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale ] incorporates some authentically scary motifs from African-American oral tradition … The plot pits a capriciously vituperative witch, Wee Winnie, against Uncle Big Anthony, who's considerably diminished in the process. First he's clawed by a black cat, then suffers for weeks as every night a witch comes for him, hangs up her skin beside his overalls, and rides him mercilessly across the night sky. Only far-seeing Mama Granny can counter the evil with her "spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone potion" that, spread on Wee Winnie's left-behind skin, finally squeezes and destroys the Wee Winnie. A boy's observations frame the story—he's even seized for a ride on the last night—but his excitement and survival are barely reassuring in the face of Moser's fierce illustrations. Set against a black background, the skinless, bloody witch and broken black man reflect a reality of historical suffering; one picture of faceless children in a tree behind the bowed figure of Uncle Big Anthony casts an eerie suggestion of lynching. Visually and verbally, this is dark art on dark art. Despite a loose narrative structure, the book generates unforgettable images. Give it to kids who beg to be chilled and thrilled—but be sure they mean it.
Tena Natale Litherland (review date November-December 2004)
SOURCE: Litherland, Tena Natale. Review of Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Barry Moser. Library Media Connection 23, no. 3 (November-December 2004): 66.
Published posthumously, this original story [Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale ] builds on the research of witches in African American folklore by the highly distinguished author, Virginia Hamilton. For many years James Lee has told a tale that he says happened to him. As a young boy, he saw a black cat drop onto his Uncle Big Anthony's back. Though his uncle tried, he couldn't get the cat off. James Lee tried to help, but when the cat snarled he was frightened and ran home. His mother told him that a Wee Winnie Witch must be after his uncle. Curious, James Lee watched his uncle. He had nasty looking cat scratches and the corners of his mouth were cut. Then, his uncle got sick. He grew smaller, stooped, and fearful. One night James Lee saw the witch slip into his uncle's house, hang up her skin, and ride his uncle like a horse in the moonlit sky. When the witch spotted James Lee watching, she hauled him in front of her for the ride of his life. Only Mama Granny and her hot pepper potion put an end to the witch. Fantastic textual imagery creates tension and suspense. Moser's eerily colored wood engravings extend the atmosphere and intensify the drama. Great as a seasonal read-aloud or with folklore units. Highly Recommended.
Hamilton, Virginia, and Marilyn Apseloff. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature in Education 14, no. 4 (December 1983): 204-13.
Hamilton discusses her career in children's literature.
Mikkelsen, Nina. "Insiders, Outsiders, and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African Americans?" African American Review 32, no. 1 (spring 1998): 33-49.
Analyzes several young adult books featuring "Afro-American culture and traditions," including several of Hamilton's works.
Russell, David L. "Cultural Identity and Individual Triumph in Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great." Children's Literature in Education 21, no. 4 (December 1990): 253-59.
Explores how African American cultural history informs the characters of M. C. Higgins, the Great.
Additional coverage of Hamilton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 21; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 8; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 11, 40; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 20, 37, 73, 126; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 206; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 33, 52; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 2001; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds, 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 4, 56, 79, 123; Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 132; and Writers for Young Adults.