When I saw Rush in the window of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, I was anxious to read it. The cover art popped (yes, it’s important) and I was curious to see how the experience of sorority rush is portrayed in current times. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it does not seem to have changed much in the thirty years since I went through it. While this book is in large part about rush, it delves into weightier topics such as generational racism and the inequities in pay and benefits to people of color.
Set in Oxford at Ole Miss, the story is told through the eyes of three main characters: Miss Pearl, the beloved African American house keeper in the fictional Alpha Delta Omega sorority; Cali, an un-“pedigreed” freshman from a small blue color Mississippi town; and, Wilda, Alpha Delt/Ole Miss alum and mom to another incoming freshman, Ellie. No good tale can be told without a villain and Patton’s Lilith Whitmore, in her powder blue rompers and matching David Yurman jewelry, rivals Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Not far behind her in wicked intent is her aptly Southern named daughter, Annie Laurie, who rises at 6am to do her hair and makeup before 9am class.
Ellie, Wilda’s daughter, Cali, and Annie Laurie all go through rush together and would all like to be Alpha Delts. While Wilda just wants her child, Ellie, to be happy, Lilith is hell bent that Annie Laurie will be her sorority sister. Both Wilda and Lilith take on supervisory roles within the sorority as alumnae that has them interacting with each other, the sorority members and the sorority staff. All of the staff are African American, with the exception of Miss Carla, the white house mother, who, incidentally, is the only staff member to have insurance and to get paid year-round.
As the school year begins, tensions abound all around. Between the freshman girls as they begin school and contemplate rush, between the sorority members and self-appointed Queen Lilith, and even among the sorority staff who are not in total solidarity simply because they’re all people of color. And, when the sorority members make a move to equalize the pay and benefits of the colored staff, the shakily built image of ‘we’ve shed our southern racist past’ disappears.
This particular part of the story hit me in my core. At my sorority at Florida State, our beloved cook, Ceil, was our Miss Pearl. And, I don’t know exactly how much she was paid or what kind of benefits she had but I do know she took a cab to and from work every day that she paid for out of her wages. I also know that the pledge class behind me made it THEIR pledge project to raise money to pay for her cab fare the entire following year. It has taken me thirty years and this book to realize the significance of that entire scenario.
From a literary perspective, Rush was too long, some of the characters were clichéd, and other characters had transformations too extreme and abrupt to be believable. But the themes make the book compelling. Why is it that only the house mother gets benefits and an annual salary? If providing benefits to the other dedicated employees would only cost each sorority member a small amount extra on the already exorbitant membership fees they’re paying, why isn’t it being done? Why is there, at most, one woman of color in any given “white” sorority? And, if there was a push for more diversity, would African American women even be interested in joining these historically white and exclusionary groups? There are also just some plain vanilla issues like what it means to be a real friend, a decent human being and a good member of a group.
I was entertained and involved and the book can be as light or as heavy as you want to make it. Reading about and recognizing disparity and mistreatment, even in the realm of elitist sorority rush, is never a bad thing.
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Elizabeth’s rating: 3 stars