Study Guide

The House of Dies Drear

By Virginia Hamilton

The House of Dies Drear Introduction

The House of Dies Drear is a young adult novel by American author Virginia Hamilton. Dies Drear was first published 1968, and is a ghost story (maybe!) and a mystery (definitely!), told mostly from the point of view of Thomas Small, a thirteen-year-old boy. It's set in an isolated, old house full of secret passageways and hidden tunnels. The house used to be a 'station' on the Underground Railroad, the name given to a network of people dedicated to helping American slaves escape from their masters and reach freedom in the pre-Civil War era.

In 1969 this book won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for "Best Juvenile" story. In addition to the Edgar Award, Hamilton won almost a hundred other awards, including the prestigious National Book Award and a Newbery Medal in 1975 for her book M.C. Higgins, The Great. She was the first black author to win the medal.

Storytelling was a big part of Hamilton's life growing up, as she said in an interview, "My mother said that her father sat his ten children down every year and said, 'I'm going to tell you how I escaped from slavery, so slavery will never happen to you'" (source). She was drawn to writing stories for children and young adults because she had "such clear memories about being a kid" (source). Sounds like a good reason to us!

If you want to learn more about Thomas and his family after reading The House of Dies Drear, be sure and pick up a copy of The Mystery of Drear House, the second and final volume of The Dies Drear Chronicles.

What is The House of Dies Drear About and Why Should I Care?

“I think that the past, the past is behind us (‘be real confusing if not, but anyway…)”

Yes, friends, 90s jam rockers Blues Traveler are right—and not just about how cool you can look if you wear a bunch of harmonicas around your neck. No, what we agree with is the idea that we tend to the think of the past as…well, passed. In other words, we tend to look ahead to the future without too much thought for all the stuff that happened to get us into the present.

But isn’t there value in recognizing even the ugliest parts of our past, in the hope that we never repeat the same mistakes?

Virginia Hamilton would answer with a resounding yes. The House of Dies Drear takes us all the way back to the Civil War. We learn about the history of the Underground Railroad, an effort to save former slaves from the worst sorts of persecution. More than a hundred years later, the evidence of the Railroad lives on. Hamilton shows us how the legacy of history continues to shape our present behavior. It’s like we’re all living in a very old house, like the one in the novel, with all kinds of fascinating passageways and compartments that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Hamilton's novel is more than just a dusty old history lesson, though. It’s a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, deep-fried and served up in a crispy enigma shell. Yum. Like all good authors, Hamilton serves up big ideas in a tasty package. She’ll get you to appreciate the importance of our shared past with a page-turning plot of treasure, ghosts, and creepy characters in masks that would satisfy even the most die-hard Scooby Doo fan. And she gets away with it, too. Thanks to a few meddling kids, of course.

The House of Dies Drear Resources

Websites

Official Website of Virginia Hamilton
Lots of interesting information on our author, and (since she loved frogs) lots of frog jokes.

"The Underground Railroad"
Try this brief, interactive tour of the Underground Railroad, from National Geographic Online.

People and Events of the Underground Railroad
A great resource, courtesy of PBS.

Scholastic's Underground Railroad Site
This interactive exploration will give you lots of information. The site is loaded with slide shows, primary sources, even teachers' guides.

Get Aboard the Underground Railroad
Want to visit a house that was part of the Underground Railroad network? Check out this National Park Service website which lists these historic locations. You can find them everywhere from Florida up to Maine. Lots of these houses are open to the public.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Offers information on the Underground Railroad, and even discusses slavery in the world today.

Movie or TV Productions

House of Dies Drear, 1984
Make sure you watch this on a dark and stormy night, because it's super spooky!

Videos

A Clip from the Movie
This is the scene where Thomas meets Pesty and Mac. They changed it a little from the book, but it's still pretty good.

"Snipets" With Virginia Hamilton
A brief, illustrated biography of Hamilton.

Images

Movie Cover
Is this Mayhew dressed as Mr. Pluto, or is it Mr. Pluto?

Another Movie Cover
Looks like Mayhew and Thomas getting to know each other.

A Secret Passageway
This picture, from a real Underground Railroad house, called the Levi Coffin House, shows a secret passageway. The beds could be pushed in front of the doorway to hide it.

Inside an Underground Cavern
Mr. Pluto's house looks something like this.

Another Cavern
This one's called "The Devil's Tea Table." Mr. Pluto would love that!