The House of Dies Drear
by Virginia Hamilton
Life is one big adventure for Thomas. He's moving to a new house in a new town on the day of his thirteenth birthday. As you might expect, he's feeling excited and scared, but mostly excited. He has his dad's love of history and is extremely curious about the present and the past. The house that his family moves to is right up Thomas's alley. It used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, and, on top of that, it's supposedly haunted. Thomas also knows the house has lots of secret passageways and hidden rooms, because he snooped and read the papers his dad got from the foundation that owns the house. His dad makes him even more curious by getting mad or clamming up whenever Thomas asks about ghosts or Mr. Pluto, the mysterious caretaker. Thomas doesn't know quite what he was he's looking for, but he wants answers. Over the course of the four days in the story, we get to learn what's important to him, and what he's about – his talents, his hopes, and…his fears.
OK, Thomas isn't really a detective. But, he's setting all the groundwork for a great career in investigation, in finding out secrets and truths. Thomas isn't fearless – we often see him frightened in the book, most of all when he tries to participate in the scaring of the Darrows. But he's detective material because his curiosity is even stronger than his fear. He wants to know the truth at all costs.
Thomas starts exploring the house of Dies Drear the day his family moves in. Before he finally goes to sleep that night, he gets lost in one of the house's hidden spaces, falls asleep in a tree, walks on top of Mr. Pluto's cavern/house, and gets chased. Then he gets grabbed and lifted into the air, by someone or something, possibly the Lord of the Underworld. Extreme curiosity = extreme adventure!
As we learn later, the Lord of the Underworld is really Mayhew, pretending to be his father, Mr. Pluto. When he has Thomas in his grasp, he gives the boy a major clue to what's going on. He says:
You rounders […] think you can come scare me out of my wits! You want to know? I have found it before you, and you ought to see it. (6.58)
"Rounders" are people who go around tricking other people out of their money (especially in bars, at pool halls, and at card games). Now that we've read the whole story, we know that Mayhew thinks that Thomas has been sent by the Darrows to try to scare Mr. Pluto so that they can look for the Dies Drear treasure. He thinks Thomas is a rounder, trying to help hustle Mr. Pluto out of Drear's riches. He's telling Thomas that he's already found the treasure.
Thomas's reaction to Mayhew's words is interesting:
Something bright exploded inside Thomas. He had no time to put away carefully and remember what Pluto had said. (6.58)
If this was a cartoon, we would see a light bulb over Thomas's head about now. But, he's too excited, nervous, and scared to hold on to the words so he can analyze them later. If he had been able to, he might've put things together sooner. If he'd told Mr. Small what Mayhew had said, Mr. Small would probably have figured out then and there that Mr. Pluto has found some kind of treasure, and that someone else wants it. That would have really gotten on Thomas's nerves. As he tells Mayhew, after the Darrow-scaring,
"Sometimes I get angry with [my father…] He always has to figure out everything before I do." (19.58)
We know just how Thomas feels. There's always somebody like that around. But, as much as Thomas wishes he was the guy figuring things out, he knows how lucky he is to have his dad around. He tells Mayhew,
"But sure, I like him fine. He's pretty smart you know. Folks always did say he had a powerful brain." (19.61)
This conversation between Mayhew and Thomas makes us realize that Mr. Small is a detective too. He shows Thomas how to find things out. He takes Thomas with him as often as he can and shows Thomas how to be observant. Detectives often learn the truth by getting people to talk, and the Thomas/Mr. Small team gets both Mr. Pluto and Mayhew to open up. When the Darrows vandalize the kitchen and Mr. Small confronts Mr. Pluto, everything comes out.
We said that Thomas is detective material because his curiosity is stronger than his fear. This is partly because Thomas is in such a safe environment. In spite of the mystery, and Thomas's intense curiosity, his mother and father are making sure he's protected.
Though Thomas is learning about people who were in a terribly unsafe position, runaway slaves, he himself is safe. This is probably part of why he feels so ashamed of his fear during the scaring of the Darrows, and why "He couldn't find the words to apologize for his fear" (19.12). He has spent the past three days imagining what life must have been like for a runaway slave, and thinking of how brave everyone involved in the Underground Railroad must have been.
One point the story makes is that Thomas, unlike black children living in the time of Dies Drear, is safe, and he can learn about black history in a safe environment. He experiences fear, but in a healthy way, with plenty of support. Even though African Americans were still experiencing lots of discrimination in the 1960s, things were much better than they were in the 1860s. Virginia Hamilton is celebrating this freedom and safety through the character of Thomas.
Thomas's art is very important to him, and at thirteen, he already has a reputation as a one-of-a-kind carver. In North Carolina people used to drive out to his house in search of his work. We learn early in the story that "There were always folks coming from distances offering Thomas money for what he carved" (1.78).
When Mayhew asks Thomas why he's "so hard on people" (19.26), Thomas blames his artistic temperament. He says:
"I make wood sculpture. I'm an artist, some say, and you have to be pretty much by yourself to carve well." He felt full of pride when Mayhew looked at him with real interest. (19.27)
Thomas's talents, and the hard work he puts into his carvings, give him self confidence. Talking about these talents to Mayhew seems to make Thomas forget how embarrassed he was about being scared before. It's no surprise Thomas is an artist – he has a vivid imagination. His art is a great way to put that imagination to use, and it helps explain to readers why Thomas is the way he is. In another section we talk about Thomas as "the new kid," and how his art, among other things, will help him both to fit in and provide support for him if he doesn't.
The story opens with what sure seems like a nightmare. He's being chased through a pine forest by a scary man. But, Thomas doesn't mind. He thinks, "That was a good dream. Good and scary" (1.12). That comment from early in the story tells us a lot about Thomas's personality. He likes excitement, adventure, and has an active dream life. The interesting thing about this particular dream is that it comes true.
He does get chased and grabbed by Mayhew, who's dressed as Mr. Pluto. In the dream, Thomas is chased and grabbed by a Mr. Pluto-looking figure – even though he's never met Mr. Pluto. The dream is also set in the new Ohio town, where the pine trees are much bigger than the ones in North Carolina. Thomas's father has described their new place and Mr. Pluto to Thomas, so it makes sense that the boy would be able to put together a semi-accurate dream picture in his mind. However, he can't know ahead of time that he'll get chased and grabbed.
Your teachers will probably want you to recognize that this as "foreshadowing." A writer foreshadows when he/she gives you hints, or shadows, of events to come before they actually happen. But, this is foreshadowing with a twist – Thomas actually predicts his own future. So does he have ESP or what? Who knows.
Plus, not everything that happens in the dream comes true. Thomas doesn't, for example, wear stilts, and Mayhew (disguised as Mr. Pluto) doesn't say "Carolina is for you. […] Stay back" (1.5). By the way, what exactly does that mean? Well, Thomas and his family are from North Carolina. It probably means, in dream language: go back to where you're supposed to be – North Carolina. Now, that doesn't exactly happen, but Mr. Pluto, Mayhew, and the Darrows do mistrust the Smalls, and try to scare them away. Plus, because of various tensions, Thomas and his family won't be accepted easily and instantly into their new community. So, that part of the dream does come true.
But, Thomas doesn't have to be psychic to figure that out. That's the way it usually is for people in a new town, and because Thomas had read some of the unusual issues surrounding the house, he knew it might be less easy than usual. Still, we leave it to you to decide whether Thomas is psychic on top of his other talents, or just very perceptive.
New Kid in Town
New-kid-in-town is a staple of young adult novels – think Bella in Twilight, or Ellie McDoodle in Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School. Being the new kid is something many people have experienced at some point, somewhere. Starting in a new school, or a new town, or a new job is always exciting and scary. For Thomas, the excitement definitely outweighs the fear even when he finds out that he and his family have plopped down in the middle of a century-old family feud.
Back in North Carolina, Thomas didn't have many friendships with younger people; he preferred older company. This might explain why he's rude to Pesty and Mac when he first meets them. In fact, he's downright suspicious of them. But, in spite of that, by the end of the story Pesty clearly adores him. And, at least according to Mayhew, there's hope he can become friends with Mac Darrow. He's clearly agitated by the lukewarm reception he and his family get in church, but he gets over it when he sees the college and the rest of the town. He's worried about fitting in, but is strong enough to handle the transition period.
His art, his budding friendships with Mayhew, Pesty, and Mr. Pluto, and his strong relationship with his family will help sustain him during his period of adjustment. Now, how do you think Thomas's first day of school will be? What do you imagine happening to him? Try to use things you read in the story to support your speculations.