Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Few writers for young readers are better know than Virginia Hamilton, who for decades has been delighting her public as well as winning high praise from critics. Among her many successful books are The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), a finalist for the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor Book, and her best-known novel, M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974), which won both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. After completing The Gathering (1981), the third work in a science-fiction trilogy, Hamilton returned to realism with Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, another Newbery Honor Book.
While she writes in a genre that has fixed conventions—for example, the absence or the relative unimportance of parents, the focus on a young protagonist who functions as a savior, and the inevitable happy ending—Hamilton is not enslaved by custom. She places her characters in unusual situations; one thinks of M. C. Higgins, perched on a bicycle at the top of a pole, keeping watch over his mountain domain; of the time-travelers in The Gathering who are trying to rescue an unhappy computer; and of Tree, walking through Brother Rush’s mirror into another world. Hamilton avoids the use of stock characters as religiously as she eschews humdrum plots. Each of her characters is distinctive, and many of them are memorable, in part because Hamilton often has them reveal their thoughts in poetic language, reflecting the rhythms of black dialect. Critics agree, however, that it is not her technical skill but her powerful imagination that keeps Virginia Hamilton at the top of her genre.