Virginia Hamilton Essay - Critical Essays

Hamilton, Virginia (Edith)


Virginia (Edith) Hamilton 1936–

American novelist, biographer, critic, and editor.

Hamilton has won acclaim for her daring and imaginative fiction in which she explores a variety of themes. She blends such elements as mystery, dreams, legend, and folklore, using an intensive prose style rich in symbolism. Hamilton has helped raise the level of sophistication in young adult literature. Her protagonists are black adolescents who face problems relevant to all human beings, reflecting her belief that "the experience of a people must come to mean the experience of humankind."

Hamilton's characters often display a wildly fertile imagination. Her early works Zeely and The Planet of Junior Brown feature protagonists whose worlds of fancy become more real to them than reality. These protagonists are helped back to a more balanced view of life through sympathetic friends. The same theme is explored again in the Justice Cycle trilogy, where unchecked mental and physical powers result in disaster and a "unit" of psychic characters survives only by helping each other.

Hamilton's most celebrated work, M. C. Higgins, the Great, follows a poor boy's growing awareness of himself and his surroundings. M. C. thinks little of what he has, preferring to sit atop a pole and dream. But when his home is threatened, M. C. stops dreaming. He learns to take pride in his heritage and to be responsible for himself and others. M. C. Higgins, the Great won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, both in 1975. Hamilton has received numerous other awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1968 for best juvenile mystery with The House of Dies Drear.

(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Something about the Author, Vol. 4.)

Elinore Standard

At the start of Virginia Hamilton's Zeely, Miss Elizabeth and Master John Perry are traveling by train to Uncle Ross' farm for the summer. New holiday names are quickly minted—Elizabeth is Geeder and John is Toeboy.

Miss Hamilton tells with perfect, nostalgic descriptions of the uncle's old farmhouse, of country days and doings, good country things to eat, and of summer nights slept in the dewy outdoors, of moonlight tricks and exchanged whispers in the dark. Best of all, this is the story of Geeder and Zeely.

Zeely Tayber was more than six and a half feet tall, thin and deeply dark as a pole of ebony….

She had very high cheekbones and her eyes seemed to turn inward on themselves. Geeder couldn't say what expression she saw on Zeely's face. She only knew that it was calm, that it had pride in it, and that the face was the most beautiful she had ever seen.

Geeder listens while Zeely tells a haunting story of her own origins and of her people. The tale has a moral and one from which Geeder profits.

Zeely is a fresh, sensitive story, with a lingering, serene, misty quality about it which the reader can save and savor.

Elinore Standard, "Weaving Spells," in Book Week—The Washington Post (© 1967, The Washington Post), June 25, 1967, p. 12.∗

Virginia Haviland

The author of Zeely has surpassed her earlier excellent achievement by dramatizing the history of an Underground Railroad Station in Ohio [in The House of Dies Drear], viewed from its extraordinary present-day milieu…. In depicting Pluto, the bizarre ancient caretaker of the place, and the macabre play-acting devised by his son to scare off the greedy neighbors, Miss Hamilton establishes an almost Gothic atmosphere. Successful in presenting the seemingly occult, she does well, too, with the plain and everyday—the realistic details of household management and the service in the little African Methodist church. Satisfying every demand of the mystery story, the tale far more importantly deals with a boy's searching spirit and the history of a great cause. Thomas's responsiveness to the people in his life, including his twin baby brothers, reveals him to be an unusually sensitive child.

Virginia Haviland, in her review of "The House of Dies Drear," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1968 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIV, No. 5, October, 1968, p. 563.

Dorothy Sterling

The last few years have seen a slow trickle of children's stories with Negro characters. For the most part these "integrated" books have been the work of white writers who too often have substituted sentimentality and good will for authenticity and depth of feeling. In "The House of Dies Drear" we have a story about black people, written by a black writer, Virginia Hamilton, whose first book, "Zeely," won a prize for promoting interracial understanding.

Above all, Miss Hamilton tells a corking good story. Thomas Small's father, a history professor in a college in Ohio, rents the century-old house that abolitionist Dies Drear built as a station on the Underground Railroad. The night the Smalls move in, things begin to happen. Ghosts walk. Walls slide back to reveal secret passageways. A labyrinth of tunnels leads to a cave under the ground. Thomas and his father explore, investigate and find treasure concealed behind a stalactite curtain. Simultaneously, the boy gains new insights into the history of his people which still, too often, remains stored in academic caves. No matter if the plot unravels too easily. Youngsters, black and white, will gulp the story in a single suspenseful sitting.

"The House of Dies Drear" is written with poetic precision. Miss Hamilton polishes her sentences with care, develops her characters with imagination and love. Thomas is a sensitive boy, self-sufficient, sometimes lonely, his relationship with his father like nothing dreamed of in the [Moynihan Report of 1965, which cited the number of black absentee husbands in proportion to white absentee husbands to support its contention that "the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling"].

Dorothy Sterling, in her review of "The House of Dies Drear," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1968, p. 26.

Julia G. Russell

[The House of Dies Drear is an] unusual, highly intriguing story skillfully incorporating Civil War history. Thirteen-year-old Thomas Small, his father (a Civil War historian), his mother and brothers arrive at their new home in a small Ohio town…. Thomas is both fascinated and frightened by the legends of escaped slaves, the eccentric old caretaker Pluto; the uncharted passageways of the house, unnerving noises, vandalism in-tended to frighten the Smalls away, forbidding neighbors with threatening sons, and an unpredictable, mysterious little girl. The ending is an anticlimax in view of the preceding tension, but it does serve to tie up loose ends in revealing the treasure of Dies Drear and the mystery surrounding old Pluto…. [The deft lack of emphasis on the family's race] puts the story's interest where it belongs—on the mystery. The fact that the main characters are Negro neither adds to nor detracts from the suspense, but does provide an unobtrusive and convincing point of view for Thomas's discussion of the community with his father. This is a superior mystery with well-sustained suspense and an unself-conscious story of a boy who gains a new appreciation of his heritage. (pp. 53-4)

Julia G. Russell, in her review of "The House of Dies Drear," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the December, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1968), Vol. 15, No. 4, December, 1968, pp. 53-4.

Michael Cart

A stunningly good, absolutely compelling, weird and unique book, Virginia Hamilton's [The Planet of Junior Brown] is the story of three outsiders in New York City: Junior Brown and Buddy Clark, both in their early teens, and Mr. Pool, a one-time teacher and now school custodian. While all three are black, what they suffer at the hands of an uncaring, unfeeling world might be suffered by anybody, anytime, anywhere. Buddy, parentless and on his own, lives by his wits in deserted building where he is the self-appointed guardian of two younger boys. Junior, luckier in material terms, lives comfortably with his overprotective mother, but he is grotesquely fat, withdrawn and, perhaps, mentally ill. Mr. Pool, who had quit teaching 15 years before, stifled by the lack of freedom in an over-structured educational system, is the two boys' companion during the days which they spend together hidden in a secret room he has constructed in the basement of the school. Through the story of the three, The Planet of Junior Brown presents an unforgettable evocation of madness—madness in the individual (overwhelming, generalized fear resulting from unrelieved spiritual/emotional/physical solitude) enforced by the madness of society which is indifference (the indifference which rejects Junior's need, while walking, "to touch a profile here and a full face there … [his] seeing and longing for the faces."). Readers see advances, probably unalterable madness...

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Alice Walker

Junior Brown [the protagonist of "The Planet of Junior Brown"] is a fat, black, hopeless boy, a 300-pound musical prodigy whose mother has untied the wires of the family piano. He sweats profusely, talks to himself, reaches out on the street to touch the faces of passing strangers and beats out his music lesson on the back of a chair. He looks like Buddha and eats like Paul Bunyan.

Into his miserable life come two friends: the janitor, Mr. Pool, once a teacher but now custodian of the high-school broom closet, and Buddy Clark, a tall, quiet, Robin Hood type. Buddy is the surrogate parent of a "planet" of homeless children, a "Tomorrow Billy" (because he always returns "tomorrow" with the food and...

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Marilyn Gardner

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," W.E.B. DuBois wrote prophetically in 1903. Virginia Hamilton's excellent biography, W.E.B. DuBois …, is a tribute to the lifetime he spent trying to solve that problem.

Her book follows him through his years with the NAACP, which he helped found. It outlines the great struggles which threatened the civil rights movement from without—whites vs. black—and from within—DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington, for example. It also attempts to set the record straight on Dr. DuBois' later years—to show how and why he was maligned, misunderstood, and ignored because of alleged pro-Communist sympathies.


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Zena Sutherland

[Carefully] researched and documented, sympathetic toward the subject yet candid about his failings, [W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography] is a sober record of the long career of William Du Bois. The biography concentrates on his adult life, giving a detailed account of the teacher, writer, and political activist and very little about his personal life. This lacks the warmth that characterizes Virginia Hamilton's fiction, but it makes a particular contribution in placing the events of Du Bois' life not just in the stream of black history but against the background of what was happening in the United States and how it inevitably affected what was happening to William Du Bois.


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Sheryl B. Andrews

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois struggled for ninety-five years as educator, writer, intellectual, and poet against prejudice and fear, so that black people throughout the world could claim their blackness with pride, their humanity with honor. There is no easy definition for such a man; perhaps the most honest approach is simply to chronicle his achievements and let them speak for themselves. [Virginia Hamilton in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography] has done just that. With grace and dignity she has recounted the story of W.E.B. Du Bois, quoting from his many works, detailing his very full life…. The book is an affirmation of Du Bois' life, and a fascinating historical document of the Black Movement in America....

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Nikki Giovanni

They say the pity of youth is that it's wasted on the young. Since we're well into our thirties and because we love the stories of Virginia Hamilton we must agree. Before motherhood descended upon us we could curl up in a corner with "Zeely" or "The Planet of Junior Brown" and cry all alone remembering … wishing … hoping about a childhood of our dreams. Now we gather child, dog and gerbils (after we have extracted their promise not to chew the book) around us on the couch, under the quilt, with a big bowl of popcorn and share "M. C. Higgins, the Great." Actually we're proud to share Virginia Hamilton with our family. They should know the good things.

M. C. Higgins is a very nice dude. He's just...

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Beryl Robinson

The richly detailed story of the Appalachian Hills [M. C. Higgins the Great,] tells of a few important days in the life of thirteen-year-old M. C. Higgins, self-styled "The Great."… Much of the story is devoted to the effect that two strangers had on M. C. One was a dude from the city, who was going through the hills making tape recordings of singers and their old songs. (M. C. was certain that when the dude heard his mother's magnificent voice, he would get her started on the way to becoming a great star.) The other stranger was a restless girl who walked fearlessly through the woods and camped briefly beside a lake. She was impatient with the local super-stitions and stimulated M. C. to a wider acceptance...

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Elaine Landau

[Until] recently it was rare to find an American under 18 who knew who Paul Robeson is. However, within less than a year, several of his old films have been revived, black students at Rutgers named their student center for him, and a three part series on Robeson, sponsored by National Educational Television, won an Emmy.

Now Robeson's renaissance is further enhanced by Virginia Hamilton's outstanding biography [Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man]. In a lively narrative style, she recounts Robeson's life from the warmth of his closely knit family, through his professional and political growth, to his persecution during the McCarthy witch-hunt and its final resolution. Virginia...

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Louis D. Mitchell

Virginia Hamilton is a craftsman, often good at being just that and nothing more. Biographical artist she is not, in [Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man], perhaps because of her lack of range and her deficient sympathy in capturing, even for children, the protean character of Paul Robeson. She merely suggests and, given the stature of Robeson, one ought to expect and receive more depth, more insight from a biographer. Perhaps this biography has merit in being pitched to a youthful reader's level—if one is to consider the very young as less intelligent, less worthy of art, less lucid in perception.

Robeson has suffered greatly for his opinions but he stands immensely above...

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Nicholas Tucker

American award-winning children's literature has sometimes been on the over-earnest side; it seems more difficult to win prizes for writing a funny, even irreverent book. What can one expect, therefore, from Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, The Great, which has scooped this year's pool by landing the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the Boston Globe award? Is it three times as good, or merely three times more earnest than previous winners?

Perhaps a bit of both; Virginia Hamilton writes in heavy but compelling prose. Characters lumber rather than leap from the page, but once in focus they make their mark….

Certainly, this is a sincere and highly original work....

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Carol Vassallo

[M. C. Higgins, the Great is] a composite of rich interwoven themes, strengthened by vivid characterization and a deep sense of place. (p. 194)

Much of the story revolves around M. C.'s emotional tension as his love for the mountain conflicts with his belief that the family must leave its home. Further, his friendship with Ben Killburn is thwarted by his family's superstitious dread of the Killburns, whom they consider "witchy." In the end M. C. saves his home by building a wall to stem the onslaught of the threatening "spoil heap." The wall is made of dirt, reinforced by rusty fenders and other car parts and, finally, by the very burial stones of his ancestors, with their markings still...

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Jane Langton

Virginia Hamilton likes dangerous edges. She tries things that might not work. Her books are experimental, different, strange. She runs bravely along the edges of cliffs.

Her characters also exist on the edges of things. Often they cross the border into adolescence, teeming out of childhood into the chancy independence of maturity with a bursting strength that sometimes brims over into violence. They are black, but their color is not what is most important about them. At Virginia Hamilton's best, her characters transcend race and youth, and grow larger until they are towering images of dignity and power.

In "Arilla Sun Down" the muscular young presence is Arilla's big brother Jack...

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Kristin Hunter

Virginia Hamilton's ["Arilla Sun Down"] delicately explores one of the most ignored facts of American society: that a great many "vanishing Americans" did not really vanish, but were absorbed instead into the relatively friendly black community. The evidence is everywhere for those who are willing to see it: Plains and Cherokee features appear startlingly at the windows of many sharecroppers' shacks and ghetto tenements, as well as in newspaper and magazine pictures of black achievers. And there are less obvious traces of this oddly hidden heritage, habits of mind and deeply rooted beliefs neither Afro nor Anglo in origin.

Imparting these last, subtlest parts of the Native American heritage through...

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Rosemary Stones

"Never before has black creative intelligence coincided so opportunely with the development of black pride, the advancement of political-cultural awareness, independence, and style to affect black art" wrote Virginia Hamilton in a 1975 article "High John Is Risen Again" … Nowhere is this "black creative intelligence" so evident as in Virginia Hamilton's own writing, first in M. C. Higgins The Great, and now in her latest book … Arilla Sun Down.

Virginia Hamilton, herself a descendant of slaves, is concerned with black identity. In M. C. Higgins The Great this concern is subtly explored in the history of the Higgins family. In Arilla Sun Down the concern is continued...

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Karen Ritter

[In Justice and Her Brothers, with] school out for the summer and their parents gone for most of the day, 11-year-old Justice is left in the company of her twin brothers, Thomas and Levi, two years older and as different in personality as they are identical in appearance…. The surface action involves Justice's attempts to keep up with her brothers and their gang in such average-kid activities as riding bicycles and catching snakes, but the subtle, sometimes confusing psychic power-struggle underneath has vivid and terrifying effects and is the source of the carefully created tension in the story. Many rich details—heat, dust, smells, patterns of sound, etc. are skillfully woven into a complex plot all the...

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Jean Fritz

Reading Virginia Hamilton is like being shot out of a cannon into the Milky Way. Sometimes just a phrase sends you off, an image or a scene, but invariably at the end of a book you marvel: look how high I've been just on words! Indeed such is the extraordinary quality of Miss Hamilton's imagination that her characters seem to have to go faster than other fictional characters just to keep up with her. They speed past, splintering time: M. C. Higgins (in the award-winning book of that name) swimming as if he were made of quicksilver; Arilla Sundown (in the book of the same title) guiding her sled at breakneck pace to the very edge of a precipice. And now [in Justice and Her Brothers] we have Justice on her...

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John Rowe Townsend

Clearly Virginia Hamilton is concerned as a writer with the black, or non-white, experience. To the best of my recollection, no fictional character in any of her work up to the time of writing is white. But there is no taint of racism in her books; as she said herself in [her article "High John is Risen Again"] 'the experience of a people must come to mean the experience of humankind.' All through her work runs an awareness of black history, and particularly of black history in America. And there is a difference in the furniture of her writing mind from that of most of her white contemporaries: dream, myth, legend and ancient story can be sensed again and again in the background of naturalistically-described...

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Jean Fritz

No one can claim that "Dustland," the second book in Virginia Hamilton's trilogy, can stand alone. Nothing is meant to be resolved, and I confess that it's hard to wait for the last and decisive volume. It's not simply that I'm impatient at the interruption of narrative; I want to know what Virginia Hamilton thinks. Is there a future for mankind? That's the kind of question she's leading up to and that's what I want to know. And I won't know until the last sparks have fallen.

In the first book, "Justice and Her Brothers," she introduces her characters: Justice, the 11-year-old heroine, her identicaltwin brothers, Tom and Levi, mirror images of good and evil, and Dorian, their strange friend....

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Betty Levin

Virginia Hamilton is a writer of rare depth and range. Her subjects, her stories, her style, continue to press forward and away from what she has written before. "Dustland" is an exception only because it follows "Justice and Her Brothers" and ought to be read as part of the Justice cycle.

Dustland is a place—or is it simply the future?—to which Justice and her twin brothers and their friend travel in their minds. The four children, each endowed with extrasensory power, can only move as a unit from home and the present to Dustland. Their mutual need is a blessing and a burden—as are all intense relationships, all commitments.

In Dustland, nothing the children have previously...

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Holly Eley

The four children who make up ["the unit" in Dustland], Thomas, Levi, Justice and Dorian, and who in their encounter with "the future" sometimes lose "psychic chunks", are so scantily drawn as to evade the imagination. However assiduously we follow up clues and try to interpret allegories (even with recourse to The New Testament, Tolkien, or Psychic News), without a picture of the children, only available in Dustland's precursor, Justice and her Brothers or towards the end of Dustland itself, we risk bewilderment and boredom. This is a great pity for if the two books had been combined the Dustland episode would have been absorbed into an intriguing whole.


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[The Planet of Junior Brown, a] powerful, haunting, troubling book, contrasts sanity and madness, endorsement and rejection of life, commitment to others and absorption with self. Characters are at once individual and deeply symbolic. They are complex and act in ways that are often inconsistent, inimical to their own interests, and totally irrational, yet their behavior is haunting and disquieting and echoes with broader meaning. The treatment of Junior Brown's withdrawal 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...

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Joyce Milton

"The Gathering" is the third volume of a trilogy about time travel that might conveniently be called science fiction but is more accurately described as a poet's flight into the future, in the same vein as Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" though unfortunately not as successful….

In volume one of this series ("Justice and Her Brothers" …) "Ticey," her twin brothers and their friend Dorian discover that they share a telepathic bond and a special mission, which will eventually draw them out of their own time. The scenes where the youngsters first test their extrasensory powers work well, mainly because the author manages to inject a bit of magic into the proceedings. In volume two...

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Holly Eley

The Gathering, volume three of Virginia Hamilton's alluring but incohesive trilogy, is an innovative book; likely to engender a spate of analysis from Black Studies Departments, it is difficult to understand and not easy to read….

Justice, Thomas, Levi and Dorian (transformed in a time warp into "the unit") have returned to Dustland (a country akin to the dust storm-plagued mid-west prairies of the 1930s) in order to guide the decrepit three-legged Slaker mutants to freedom. But once there, they encounter, empathize with and decide to help the half-child leggens, smooth keeps and youngens who, grouped in "packens" of threes, are inching their way towards a Celestial City in the face of...

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Betsy Hearne

The author of award-winning M. C. Higgins the Great … and other imaginative works has ventured again into new ways of exploring the human spirit—literally, in [the case of Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush]; one of the three principal characters is a ghost…. The story is minutely and vividly developed, with no jarring of continuity between scenes of present time and past. Each character takes shape both from current behavior and influential factors of his or her background. This interplay of past on present is one of the most skillful aspects of the book, another being the emotional portraiture of several distinctive, empathetic individuals unbared by crisis. The language is a blend of occasionally...

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Ethel L. Heins

Few writers of fiction for young people are as daring, inventive, and challenging to read—or to review—as Virgina Hamilton. Frankly making demands on her readers, she nevertheless expresses herself in a style essentially simple and concise—though often given to outbursts of intense feeling. And meeting those demands, the reader not only forgives but learns to enjoy her small lapses into obscurity, which a less subtle writer would find intolerable.

Not quite fifteen, Tree (short for Teresa) [the protagonist in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush] was bright and self-reliant; every day she came home from school promptly, her whole existence centered on looking after Dab, her retarded older...

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David Guy

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...

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Katherine Paterson

There are those who say that Virginia Hamilton is a great writer but that her books are hard to get into. [Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush] is not. It fairly reaches off the first page to grab you, and once it's got you, it sets you spinning deeper and deeper into its story. Needless to say, this is not a conventional ghost story. In fact, the function of the ghost in this book is to provide 14-year-old Tree Pratt with a place from which to view her world. (p. 41)

Through the space of [the ghost of] Brother Rush, Tree mystically learns the tragic history of her mother's people. But why does she need to know these things? Why has Brother Rush come? What are his whispers—the message—that he...

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