Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush is one of the best examples of the “new realism” genre of young adult fiction, in which—as in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or the novels of S. E. Hinton—the problems of adolescents are realistically portrayed. The book is at the same time a ghost story and thus an example of the supernatural genre. The fact that the two genres do not usually reside together is a tribute to Hamilton’s ability to fuse them in fiction, to make them work for each other.
The novel was also in some ways a culmination of what Virginia Hamilton had been doing successfully for several decades. The writer of two juvenile biographies of important black figures (W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson), she was also the creator of other popular young adult novels, including M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974). Further, Hamilton was the author of The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985), a children’s collection. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush thus combines her several interests: It is an exciting young adult novel that keeps readers glued to their seats, but at the same time it gives important information about black life, black history, and folklore. The fact that Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush is a young adult novel is almost irrelevant. Better to say that, like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Hamilton used black life, language, and history to weave a powerful story of the ways the past and present intersect. The many prizes that went to Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush—including a John Newbery Honor Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and an American Book Award nomination—are evidence enough of this view.