TREE -- Short for Teresa -- is a black girl with a world of problems. She has never known a father. Her mother is a nurse and stays away for weeks at a time. School means little to Tree. Not only must she cook and keep house, but she has to take care of her older brother Dab, who is marginally retarded and also exhibits symptoms of another illness; he cringes from light, grows absent-minded and distracted, sometimes experiences severe pain. Tree and her brother are extremely close; in the small apartment where they live, he has been her whole world. At the age of 14, she seems ready to expand her horizons.
Such facts are not unusual in a novel for young people, which characteristically loads its protagonist down with a host of problems as if to gather as many sympathetic readers as possible. Where these books seem contrived they are often just being didactic, teaching their readers the lessons that the characters learn. In the case of Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, since Tree justifiably resents her mother's absence, we would expect the book to explain why her mother -- M'Vy, as Tree calls her -- is so often gone. M'Vy has always been distant from Dab, and Tree must come to understand that distance too. Tree has suddenly realized she knows nothing about her father, or her mother's family. She is beginning to long for a larger world, for a real family, for some respect as a person, for a little romance . . .
Tree finds these things, but the way in which she finds them is extraordinary. She is visited by a ghost -- Brother Rush, her mother's brother -- who appears to her first in the street and later in a little room in which she likes to sit and draw. He appears as a handsome young man in beautiful clothes, "the stone finest dude Tree had ever seen." He holds up a piece of her drawing paper, and in an oval "like a mirror" on the paper, Tree sees scenes from the past. She sees M'Vy as a young mother, with a darling girl child and a much more difficult son. She sees a scene in which Brother Rush exhibits the same symptoms Dab has. She sees her father with Brother Rush, and witnesses Brother's death. She not only sees these experiences, but is able to live them, both as herself as a child and as an unseen participant.
These are not the hallucinations of a lonely and burdened girl. Dab also sees the ghost, as does an elderly cleaning woman, and M'Vy is able to feel its presence without actually seeing it. The ghost is an accepted part of Tree's experience, as real as cleaning up after Dab. M'Vy simply explains that her daughter has "seen the mystery," and her man friend Silversmith also takes it in stride: "Ain't nothing to it. It just our way. Black folks is gifted."
Thus in reading Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, I felt an unusual tension. At times it seemed simply a very well-written young adult novel, in which a young person's problems are bravely faced and explained. When Brother Rush was on the scene, however, I felt in the presence of another kind of imagination altogether, that of a poetic visionary who, for instance, could see two black men riding off into eternity in a fancy car smelling of alcohol and cigars. The book could vaguely bore me and utterly astound me within the space of a single chapter.
Virginia Hamilton is obviously an author who is willing to take chances, not only with her story but also in her use of language; much of her novel is told in black slang and dialect that were not easy for this white reader to follow. Her dialogue seems accurate, however, and her descriptive writing is vivid and succinct. Hamilton has won many prizes for her fiction for young people; this novel will also be widely and justly praised. I can't help wishing, however, that she would release her remarkable imagination from the contrived situations of the conventional young adult novel. I would love to see where such an imagination might lead her. CAPTION: Illustration, Jacket, Copyright (c) 1982 by Leo and Daine Dillon