Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush is a novel about family—about its complex evolution, about the relationship between its past and its present, and about the identity that one person can gain through that multilayered history.

Tree Pratt is already older than her years when the novel opens, for she is almost totally responsible for her brother in her mother’s absence. She still has a lot of growing to do, however, and she does much of it in the short course of this novel. Brother Rush gives her the family history she never had, and through her trips with him Tree learns about her mother’s early life. In the midst of the crisis over Dab, though, Tree is not able to process everything that is happening to her, and she lashes out in a typically childish way, getting angry at Muh Vy and threatening to run away. Through the intervention of Rush, Muh Vy, Miss Pricherd, and Silversmith, Tree is able to work her way out of this emotionally difficult place and to feel better about her emergent family. Readers should feel good about Tree’s future as well, for she has navigated the shoals of adolescence and seems headed for a happier adulthood with a real identity and real strengths.

This is also a novel about family and family relationships. Few young adult novels have such realism or depth about family life and history. Readers witness the pain of Tree’s aloneness but also experience the joy of the new family beginning together at the end. Muh Vy’s love for her children is apparent, but so too is the abuse she was driven to as a younger woman. Likewise, Tree’s devotion to her brother is admirable, but she is also capable of selfishness, even in the moments of Dab’s sickness and death. The novel, in short, gives readers family life with all its warts, but not a few of its wonders. Here is a family unique in young adult fiction: single-parent, with a dramatic history, and with a future. The intensity of the relationships—the love between Tree and...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush is a story about growing up. Although Tree’s situation is unusual, her uncertainties are not. Like all girls of her age, she is troubled about relationships with parents, with siblings, and with the opposite sex. In her parents’ absence, she yearns to be part of a real family; when her mother is revealed as less than perfect, however, Tree distances herself and rejects Muh Vy’s love. Similarly, while she has always made allowances for her brother, Tree is not happy about his sexual promiscuity, which seems no different from the behavior of the boys on the street corner, whose catcalls somehow make her ashamed of her own gender.

What makes this story so different from most young adult novels is that instead of rebelling against the standards she has been taught, the protagonist clings to them too rigidly. In the process of growing up, Tree must learn to temper two good qualities she possesses, her capacity for devoted love and her strong sense of resonsibility, with compassion for those who are deficient in those virtues. It is easy to idealize an absent mother; it is more difficult to forgive one who is present, admitting what seem like unforgivable faults. Fortunately, Tree already has some experience in accepting imperfection; what she must learn is to extend the tolerance she displays in her relationship with Dabney to others, like her mother, who are not so obviously flawed.

Finally, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush emphasizes the importance of dealing honestly with the past. After Muh Vy’s rejection and mistreatment of Dabney is revealed, it is obvious to the reader, though perhaps not yet to Tree, that Muh Vy’s feelings of guilt are the reason she sees her children so infrequently, just as her habit of denial is the reason she has suppressed her memories of her brothers’ deaths. It is interesting that the past, in the person of Brother Rush, chooses to approach Tree, rather than Muh Vy herself. One might say that, after all, this is a young adult novel, with a young adult protagonist. Yet it is more significant that by having Viola redeemed through her daughter, Virginia Hamilton has expanded the theme of responsibility. It is not just the obviously afflicted who merit concern, she suggests; everyone in a society or in a family has an obligation to everyone else.