The House of Dies Drear
by Virginia Hamilton
Mr. Small loves history. That's the first thing you need to know about him. Actually, he has history for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Plus, he teaches it to college students, and to his thirteen-year-old son Thomas. Specifically, Mr. Small teaches about Civil War history. So it's not accident that the Smalls are moving to a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Nope. Mr. Small has wanted to live in just such a house for a very long time. We are told that,
When Thomas's father read about the station house for rent in Ohio, he had written to the foundation that owned it for a full report. For years he had hoped to explore and possibly live in a house on the Underground Railroad. (2.5)
This quickly turns into Thomas's dream, too, but his father thinks he's a little too young to understand everything that's going on.
No Ghosts Allowed!
Mr. Small really doesn't believe in ghosts and angrily calls them "superstitions" (2.32) and "poppycock!" (2.32). He's angry because he thinks that the legend of that the Dies Drear house is haunted is harmful because it takes attention away from the real historical and present truths in the house. He's afraid Thomas will add to the problem if he talks about the ghost legend to the people in town. He knows how thrilling the idea of ghosts and haunted houses is to Thomas, but wants him to understand what is really going on. As we discuss under the theme "The Supernatural," the story doesn't rule out the possibility that the ghosts are real. It simply presents several viewpoints on the issue.
Very Observant Person (V.O.P.)
Thomas makes a big deal about his father's success in figuring things out, and he wonders about the key to such success. If we look at Thomas's own observations, we find the answer staring him right in the face. To show you what we mean, let's look at two important moments from the text. The first is from Chapter 2. The Smalls are driving to their new home, and Thomas is thinking about how mysterious his father is being about the ghost legend. Thomas comes to this conclusion:
It must be that whatever Papa means to hide from me isn't written down. It's something you have to put together from what is written down. When he got mad at me and closed the door, I must have been close to finding out. (2.37)
Thomas brings up a very important aspect of solving puzzles – reading between the lines, figuring out what's been left out by analyzing what's been left in. This goes hand in hand with observation, and in Mr. Small's case, probably comes from years of practice. Remember, he is a professional historian, and historians are known for their ability to read between the lines. But, the interesting thing is, Thomas is wrong. Mr. Small hasn't completely put things together at this point. Otherwise, he would have known that Mr. Pluto wasn't behind the mess in the kitchen. It's not really clear how much Mr. Small knows before they move into the Dies Drear house, but it's definitely less than Thomas thinks.
This next scene, from Chapter 10, makes Mr. Small's powers of observation obvious. This is what he tells Thomas in church when he sees the Darrows, though he has never met them, seen them, or heard of them before:
"That boy at the piano [Mac Darrow] […] he must be of the same family as the four men. He's got the same head and the same build. […] Yes, they are of a family, five of them. One of the four is the father." (10.45)
This time he's right, to Thomas's amazement. But, by sharing his observations with Thomas, he is showing him how to see things more clearly. When he points out the resemblances, Thomas is able to see them. His noticing skills are being strengthened from the exercise. What are some of the other things Mr. Small notices? What are some of the things he misses?