Bellairs sets his stories in small towns, often modeled after places where he lived in his youth or during his academic career. His first three novels are set in New Zebedee, clearly modeled after his hometown of Marshall, Michigan. After he moved to Haverhill, Massachusetts, he shifted the locale of his stories to the imaginary New England town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts. Like those other novels, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn is set in a small town similar to one Bellairs once lived in. He once held a teaching position at St. Theresa's College in Winona, Minnesota. He sets the action of The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn in a small town he calls Hoosac, Minnesota.
The action of The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn takes place during the 1950s. Bellairs recreates the quality of small-town living as experienced by a young, growing boy. Because his own hometown maintained its links with the past through architectural preservation, Bellairs experienced an atmosphere that blended the comfortable familiarity of a small town with the mysterious suggestiveness that old buildings convey. As a result, the author communicates a combined sense of the familiar and the mysterious in all his stories. Architecture plays an important part in many of them. In this tale, Anthony searches out the hidden treasure within the confines of the town's public library—a building that contains both the warmth of the books Bellairs loved as a child and the mysteriousness of hidden rooms in which dusty tomes and even dustier mysteries might rest for decades.
In all of his work, Bellairs writes from the young person's point of view, describing action, characters, and settings, as that person views them. Additionally, he conveys the young person's reactions to people and situations, and shows the worries and fears young people suffer as they try to resolve their problems. At the same time, Bellairs depicts the kinds of pleasures that make life worth living—the taste of hot chocolate on a cold winter's day; a warm meal served up by a loving parent, grandparent, or special friend; that special radio program that allows a young person's imagination to wander through realms outside his or her hometown. The author's re-creation of this childhood perspective—with its wonderful warmth and its troublesome fears—is something that all young readers can immediately recognize and that all older readers can remember with fondness.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn successfully conveys the sense of worry and inadequacy that sensitive young people like Anthony often feel:
Listening to his parents argue made Anthony feel sick to his stomach. He lay there, eyes wide, staring at the dark wall next to his bed. He heard his mother say that if they didn't watch out, they'd all be out in the street . . . . He wondered if his family really would go broke someday. He worried a lot about money, and considering what his mother was like, this was not very surprising.
Yet if a youngster's imagination can exaggerate worry, it can also create compensating fantasies:
The shelf clock downstairs struck half past twelve. Anthony started to feel drowsy, and as always his mind drifted from worry into daydream. First he was a diver, stumping across the floor of the ocean in a diving suit, poking among the rotting ribs of a Spanish galleon till he found a chest full of golden coins. Then he imagined himself sitting at his own kitchen table downstairs. The table was covered with a heap of gold coins. . . . Now his mother would never have to worry about money again, not ever.
Bellairs's language rarely becomes more sophisticated than his own heroes would normally use. His description of childhood pleasures is simple, yet evocative. For example, when Miss Eells makes tea for Anthony:
The kettle started to make abouttoboil noises. It trembled and rattled and whined, and little wisps of steam came curling out of the spout. . . . They waited for the tea to steep; then Anthony held the strainer as...
(The entire section is 1,130 words.)