Virginia Hamilton’s House of Dies Drear
Illus. Eros Keith

Macmillan, 1968

Hard to imagine a house with a more troubled past, historically speaking.

For years I have confused Virginia Hamilton’s award-winning novel with John Bellair’s The House with the Clock in its Walls (which is also, by the way, a fantastic story, and perfect for this time of year). How pleased I am to have finally read both of them and be able to finally distinguish between two terrific stories.

Thomas’ father, Mr. Small, has long wanted to live in a house that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad; the House of Dies Drear not only offered care and concealment but also outfitted the slaves to return into captivity to ensure the escape of many more in their footsteps, travelling beyond, to safety in Canada. (I can’t fathom the courage it would have taken to not only escape but to voluntarily return to bondage to facilitate the escape of others.)

“The house of Dies Drear loomed out of mist and murky sky, not only gray and formless, but huge and unnatural. It seemed to crouch on the side of a hill high above the highway. And it had a dark, isolated look about it that set it at odds with all that was living.”

Hard to imagine a more fascinating setting for a haunting tale.

“I don’t think there’s a straight angle in the whole place,” says Mr. Small. And he tells Thomas that Mr. Pluto, the home’s caretaker, “did try to convince me not to live in that house. He was serious about it, too. He knows the legend, and I’m sure by now he believes it.”

But Mr. Small is passionate about history and, after doing some substantial research on the house, buys it and moves in with his wife and Thomas and two, much younger, boys.

Right away Thomas is struck by the house, alternately fearful and determined to explore his surroundings.

“Deep down, Thomas didn’t believe in ghosts. But when night fell, when he was alone in the dark, he feared he might see one. And if there were haunts in the new house, he wanted to be sure he had everything straight in his mind about them.”

Even before dinner on the afternoon of their arrival, he discovers that the mysteries he expected to find in the house are more complex and disturbing than he could have guessed.

“The house has secrets!” And not only are there secrets to unravel, but there are practical matters to explore as well. “This whole place is crisscrossed with tunnels and caves. Sound might travel a long way on a current of air.”

The story is thrilling from this perspective: tunnels, caves, apparitions and secret passages abound. But the story is infused with history as well. And even though Virginia Hamilton‘s tale is written for children, she does not shy away from complex issues.

As one character says to Thomas’ father, “I’ll take freedom any day over all the romantic nonsense about slavery.”  And the tension in the room is not defused by Mr. Small’s response: “I mean not to glorify it…I simply want people to know about it. It’s a part of our history, and yet no one tells the truth about it.”

Companion Reads: Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada, Virginia Hamilton’s Many Thousand Gone, Barbara Greenwood’s The Last Safe House, Deborah Hopkinson’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (paintings by James Ransome), Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton

PS This book was recommended in Shireen Dodson’s Books for Girls to Grow On; have you read any of Virginia Hamilton’s books?