The House of Dies Drear
by Virginia Hamilton
Mr. Pluto / Mr. Skinner
Talk about a mystery. Mr. Pluto, the caretaker of the Dies Drear property, is one of the biggest mysteries of the story. Who is he? Is he good or evil? Is he the Lord of the Underworld? Pesty knows the answer – Mr. Pluto (as Mr. Skinner is most often called in the book) is incredibly kind, a great storyteller, and also has arms that are good for sleeping in. But Thomas sees both of them as diabolical, at least at first. After church, he thinks to himself, "I'll not wave to them. […] I'll not wave at the devil, nor the devil's disciple!" (10.117). Luckily, by the end of the story Thomas sees Mr. Pluto for what he is – a kind man who can live peacefully and happily with the Smalls.
Introducing Mr. Pluto
As you know, "Mr. Pluto" is a nickname. His real name is Henry Skinner (12.5). Pluto is the name of the Roman god of the Underworld (you might know him by his Greek name, Hades). Because Henry Skinner lives in a cave and seems scary, the nickname stuck. Mr. Pluto also has a bad foot, which the townspeople also associate with the god Pluto. But they're mistaken. Some legends claim that the Christian devil is "lame" or has a bad foot. So, the townspeople have their Christian and Roman myths and legends all mixed up together. The Roman Pluto certainly didn't have a bad foot.
Mr. Small and Mayhew Skinner, Mr. Pluto's son, are angry that people would call Mr. Pluto the devil. They think it's mean and small-minded behavior (which it is). Of course, Mr. Pluto does play up the image as a defense. If people are afraid of him, they won't bother him and won't find out about his treasure. He actually succeeds in keeping the Darrows out of his treasure cavern for a very long time.
But more than the devil or the god Pluto, Mr. Pluto reminds us of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, specifically blacksmith's fire. Not only is Hephaestus a blacksmith, but he actually has a bad foot.
Mr. Small forgot to tell Thomas that Mr. Skinner is a blacksmith. He makes his living making things out of steel, especially things for horses, like horseshoes. That information would have been really useful to Thomas. But then things wouldn't have been as fun, would they? Like Thomas, we Shmoopers have fun wondering why there are diabolical fires lighting up Mr. Skinner's cavern, and speculating as to the source of the ghostly hissing and moaning.
Unless you know what a blacksmith's shop looks like, you'll want to check out this Museum Of America video, "Blacksmith." The video helps us picture the scene, and understand how scary it must have looked to Thomas. About halfway through the video you'll get to see and hear the bellows hissing, the sound Thomas thought was the moaning of ghosts. You'll also see how strong Mr. Pluto must be to do this work. Blacksmithing is hard work, but also fun. Who doesn't want to pound hot steel with a hammer? It's definitely an art, as you'll see clearly in this "Smartshop Blacksmith Demonstration."
History and Background
Even at the end of the story, there is some mystery surrounding Mr. Pluto. We know that his "great-great-grandfather" (17.20) was a runaway slave that made it to Canada, and lived a good life in freedom. He had been sheltered at Dies Drear's house. The story of the house was passed down to him, including the rumor of treasures. Having heard the stories of wealth and intrigue, he left Canada as a young man to explore the place that sheltered his ancestor.
The Darrows also descended from either a person running from slavery, hiding in the Drear house when Drear was murdered, or a Mohegan Indian who traveled to North Carolina from New England with Drear. Originally, River Swift Darrow and Mr. Pluto were friends. But, Darrow had also heard the stories of a secret treasure and wanted it for himself. Darrow got his son and grandsons to help in trying to drive Mr. Pluto away. He hoped that Pluto wouldn't find the treasure before he did. Darrow felt like the treasure was rightfully his. After all, his ancestor was as a much a part of Drear house as Mr. Pluto's.
We don't know when Mr. Pluto met Mayhew's mother, or when she had Mayhew. As we discuss in his "Character Analysis" the discomfort of living in the middle of a family feud, among townspeople who didn't trust her family caused her to take Mayhew and leave town. At some point after she left, Mr. Pluto actually found the treasure. Nobody knows this but Mayhew and Pesty, until the Smalls show up. When the Smalls learn Mr. Pluto's secret and agree to help keep it on the down low for a little while, it seems that Pluto's life of isolation, fear, secrecy, and loneliness has finally come to an end.
For more on the compelling man with the bright green eyes, see "Character Clues," and "Character Roles." Also, be sure to check out "The Treasure of Dies Drear" in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."