Virginia Hamilton Dorothy Sterling - Essay

Dorothy Sterling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The last few years have seen a slow trickle of children's stories with Negro characters. For the most part these "integrated" books have been the work of white writers who too often have substituted sentimentality and good will for authenticity and depth of feeling. In "The House of Dies Drear" we have a story about black people, written by a black writer, Virginia Hamilton, whose first book, "Zeely," won a prize for promoting interracial understanding.

Above all, Miss Hamilton tells a corking good story. Thomas Small's father, a history professor in a college in Ohio, rents the century-old house that abolitionist Dies Drear built as a station on the Underground Railroad. The night the Smalls move in, things begin to happen. Ghosts walk. Walls slide back to reveal secret passageways. A labyrinth of tunnels leads to a cave under the ground. Thomas and his father explore, investigate and find treasure concealed behind a stalactite curtain. Simultaneously, the boy gains new insights into the history of his people which still, too often, remains stored in academic caves. No matter if the plot unravels too easily. Youngsters, black and white, will gulp the story in a single suspenseful sitting.

"The House of Dies Drear" is written with poetic precision. Miss Hamilton polishes her sentences with care, develops her characters with imagination and love. Thomas is a sensitive boy, self-sufficient, sometimes lonely, his relationship with his father like nothing dreamed of in the [Moynihan Report of 1965, which cited the number of black absentee husbands in proportion to white absentee husbands to support its contention that "the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling"].

Dorothy Sterling, in her review of "The House of Dies Drear," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1968, p. 26.