Study Guide

The House of Dies Drear Setting

By Virginia Hamilton


Four days in a (possibly) haunted house, somewhere near Columbus, Ohio, the late 1960s

Dies Drear's house is a real piece of history. Even it's floor plan, with it's secret passageways, hidden rooms, and underground caverns, tells a story about the Underground Railroad and American history. Because the house is a relic of the past, even though the story is set in the 1960s the characters are immersed in the history of the pre-Civil War era.

So the setting gives us a chance to compare the two exciting and vibrant periods in US history, separated by a hundred years. In the 1860s, slavery was in the process of being ended, but it would take about another hundred years before African Americans would really gain many of their legal rights. While the 1860s are remembered for the Civil War, the 1960s are remembered for the Civil Rights Movement.

(If you want to read about the real houses that were stations on the Underground Railroad, here's a link to the Levi Coffin House in Indiana.)

The house is also seriously spooky. How do you feel when you read this description of Thomas's first view of the house he and his family are moving in to?

The house of Dies Drear loomed out of the mist and murky sky, not only gray and formless, but huge and unnatural. It seems to crouch on the side of the hill […]. It had a dark, isolated look about it that set it at odds with all that was living. (3.6)

It makes us feel a little apprehensive about going inside. But, once we get to know Thomas better we know he has a tendency to see things in their scariest light, because he kind of likes being spooked. Still, the description sets a tone of darkness, and isolation that fuels suspense and imagination. Readers often react with excitement to the story's setting. When teacher Paula Reynolds taught this book, one of her students said,

"Oh I can just see those caves. I can imagine running across the river there and getting to that house. I would have explored every one of those caves and I would have been so glad to be there and be safe." (source)

We think it's interesting that the student thinks that Thomas is exploring safely. Different readers will have very different reactions to Thomas's adventures. What do you think? Is he safe? Do you fear for his safety? Why or why not. Find some lines to show what you mean.