The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton
The Small family—thirteen-year-old Thomas, and his father, mother, and twin baby brothers—is moving from North Carolina to Ohio. Thomas has mixed feelings about the move—on one hand, he's leaving the mountains and his Great-grandmother behind, but on the other, the house they're moving to was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, complete with secret passages and rooms:
"I never did get the complete floor plans from the real estate people—did I tell you that? They said the plans have been missing for years. They've no idea how many hidden rooms and such the house has. We do have the partial plans though. I should be able to puzzle the whole of it out from them. But it's odd, don't you think, that all the complete plans should be gone?" (8)
Less appealing—but no less fascinating to Thomas—is the idea that the house might be haunted by the ghost of the abolitionist who once owned it:
Thomas sat so quietly in the car with his eyes closed, he appeared to be sleeping. But his mind was full of thoughts about what else his father had told him was in the report from the Ohio foundation. The report went on to say that three slaves whom Dies Drear had hidden for a time were caught in an attempt to reach Canada. In truth, they were headed south again, but because they were captured on the northern side of the Ohio River they were believed to be fleeing to Canada. Their hidden money was discovered. Two of the slaves were killed by the bounty hunters who caught them. That same week, Dies Drear was murdered. (16-17)
It's an atmospheric, occasionally intensely scary mystery about a possibly-haunted house. It's a story about fathers and sons and about family; it's about the weight of secrets; it's about making sacrifices for the Greater Good, and it's about different individuals grappling with whether or not those sacrifices are necessary.
It's about generational differences—about how different generations deal with issues of racism and segregation, with the repercussions and fallout from the institution of slavery, with differences of opinion about how to achieve change. It acknowledges the complexity of those different perspectives, of how history and one's knowledge ABOUT history factors in, and it does it in a way that is respectful of the different ways of thinking, as well as respecting the reader enough to avoid overly expository dialogue or didacticism:
"I'm tired of everything being always just the same," Thomas couldn't help saying. He felt a sudden relief, as though somewhere inside him he had let fly a rock. "Always colored churches! Always white churches somewhere hidden! Why is it folks never get together? We didn't have to leave home at all. We could've stayed with Great-grandmother and had the very same change. We wouldn't even have to go to church, because there isn't any church left to go to!"
"Oh, I see," said Mr. Small. He looked out over the town. "I do see. . . . But you can walk any part of that town down there and nobody will stop you. A few folks might look at you hard, but no one will be vicious with you. No one will call you names."
"How do you know?" asked Thomas. "As long as there are hidden churches, how can you be so sure?" (131-132)
It's about protecting stories and sharing them; about the importance of saving and passing down those stories, personal and familial and cultural; about holding information and knowledge as precious, as treasure—and it's also about knowing when to it's safe to share it, to show the treasure to the world. And yes, if you're wondering: the treasure is metaphorical AND literal. It's intangible as in history passed down through word-of-mouth, and it's tangible as in there's a legit dragon's hoard of STUFF.
While the action sequences are sometimes seriously terrifying, they actually serve as pressure valves. They allow the reader to release some of the more creeping tension that builds from quieter moments like this:
Thomas was asleep when suddenly the upstairs hall light went off. Awhile after that, there was again the sound of running water. Then the hall mirror near the oak door swung silently open. And through it all Thomas slept. (92)
These next two passages build the tension a different way, by first showing how Thomas sees his new town—through a gauzy, idyllic filter:
Thomas saw homes side by side where white and colored children played on the lawns together. And he saw houses on streets where you couldn't tell what kind of people might live in them. (144)
And then she contrasts it with this intensely claustrophobic—and classically Gothic—description of their new house:
They crossed over the bridge. Almost at once, Thomas felt their isolation from all things ordinary. They were so cut off from the highway, from the town, from all life that was normal, they might as well have been locked in a closet. The dark and silent house looming over them had already reached out for them and was pulling them in. (146)
From that image of kids playing outside straight to the feeling of being locked in a closet—looking at those excerpts one right after another might not feel particularly subtle, but in the book they're two pages apart, and so, so effective.
The book is full of the kind of dialogue and staging that I associate with older childrens' books—which is appropriate, as it first pubbed in 1968—in that the adults have Adult Conversations in front of the younger characters. For instance:
"You shouldn't hate," Mr. Small said. "It will destroy you."
"That's a well-meaning lie," said Mayhew. "Folks have hated other folks for centuries, and the same business is still with us." (178)
While that conversation takes place in front of Thomas, while the words are right there on the page, Thomas doesn't necessarily have the frame of reference to entirely understand the nuances of what they're talking about. Thomas—and through him, some of the book's younger readers—picks up on the gist of what's being discussed, but not always the detail or the deeper undercurrents.
Another thing I associate with older children's books: Adults who play large roles. The plotting in this book isn't really driven by Thomas at all—he's a participant and an observer, and he has his moments of adventure and action, but the majority of the forward momentum comes from decisions and actions of the adults. And, in a move that I am flat-out IN LOVE WITH, the book directly comments on the frustration that kids feel both of those subjects:
"It's hard for a boy growing up without his father, not even able to wish for him since he didn't like him to begin with. You like your father though, don't you, Thomas?"
"Sometimes I get angry with him," Thomas said. "He always has to figure out everything before I do. Like in the house when we were planning to scare the Darrows." (237)
It makes for the kind of book that changes when it's re-read—not because the book has changed, obviously, but because of changes in the reader's own understanding of the world, in their own personal knowledge base.
Thomas himself is a complicated character, very much a child—the moments when he gets angry and frustrated but has a hard time expressing WHY are especially great—but also very much on the cusp of understanding the world through a more adult lens:
He accepted the fact that there were certain things you didn't do in church. Even the most comic boy wouldn't laugh or make fun of it. Even the worst boy would not set flame to it, as some white boys had done at home, when the last preacher and his son began holding night meetings. To his mind, making fun and setting flame were degrees of the same evil. (114)
He's a loving brother and son, he's brave, and he's honest—but he's not particularly adept at dealing with people his own age, and he's prone to judging people harshly and holding grudges. Occasionally, the things that came out of his mouth were so wonderfully Precocious Child that they made me laugh out loud:
"I'm sorry she wouldn't come with us," said Mr. Small, "but she has that right to end where she began. Anyway, it's time you learned about young people. You are already wise in the ways of the old."
"I like old people," said Thomas. "They never need to know what you are carving out of wood or even why. They just wait until it's done and then they say it's good." (23)
Like the house itself, Mr. Pluto the caretaker—his nickname is a reference to Hades—both fascinates and repels Thomas. At some points he seems like a kind and gentle frail old man; at others, he seems to move with impossible speed, strength, and grace. At some points he seems thoughtful, prone to warmth and humor; at others, he seems aggressive and angry. This is an example of one of his quieter moments, but one that Thomas understandably interprets as vaguely sinister nonetheless:
He looked gently at Mrs. Small. He looked at Mr. Small with that odd trace of amusement on his face. He stared vacantly at Thomas, then up at the ceiling. And he spoke a kind of chant that sounded old and worn, like history.
"When hoot owl screeching, westward flies,
Gauge the sun . . .
Look to Dies,
And Run." (79-80)
While the book is decades old, I don't want to ENTIRELY give away Mr. Pluto's secrets—but I will say that the whole reveal comes about in a scene that is, honest to God, straight out of Scooby-Doo. And I mean that in an entirely positive way.
Next up, maybe:
There's a sequel! The Mystery of Drear House. So I'll be reading that soon, for sure. And possibly also Forgery!, by Phyllis Bentley, both because it was an Edgar finalist the same year that this book won, and because it has an exclamation mark in the title. I can never resist that.
Lists & so on:
Award: Edgar Award, 1969 Juvenile Winner
Book to Film: By Title.
Book List: SLJ Best of the Best, 1966-1978 (EBSCO database link, password required)