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The Boy in the Burning House

The Boy in the Burning House

In a windowless room off the kitchen hallway, Father Fisher did his praying. It had once been a pantry but there was no food in it any more, just food for thought. That’s what Father liked to say. Ruth Rose couldn’t care less about his religious books, his tracts, the Acts and Epistles of the Apostles. The letters she was after weren’t so high-minded.

Somebody was trying to blackmail Father.

She wasn’t a complete fool, no matter what anybody said. She didn’t expect it would be easy to find proof and no one was going to believe her without it. So she searched when and where she could, and watched and listened.

It was after midnight. She sat in the broom closet. The closet smelled of vinegar and detergent, of Windex and Pledge. She had the door open a crack. Street light sifted through the back door window. She rocked back and forth, concentrating.

He was in there, across the narrow hall, in his own darkness.

He hadn’t shut the door all the way. She could hear the old oak prayer-stall creak under his weight. How penitent he sounded, with his God this and God that. “I have sinned,” he said. “I come before you, O, God, with a heavy heart,” he said. “Empty me, O, Lord,” he said. “Lighten me.”

He mumbled, snuffled a bit. She tuned him in like a night radio station transmitting from a long way off. His voice, pulpit-tempered and sermon-strong, quivered and quavered around the edges. He was agitated, whining. Good.

“Take me back,” he said. His voice became trance-like. Praying did that to him, sometimes. She had watched him sway in church as if under a spell, but that was mostly holy show for the congregation. It was only in the praying room that he gave voice to his deeper secrets. They crawled out of the cave of his mouth in whispers and groans.

“Help me...”

His voice cracked, changed. Ruth Rose held her breath.

“Tabor, can you keep a secret?”

It was not his voice. Somewhere down inside his massive frame, Father had dug up the voice of a boy.

“Pssst!” he hissed, and the sizzle of it made Ruth Rose jerk her head backwards, hitting the shelf above her. A toilet roll fell onto her lap, then bounced onto the floor, bumping against a washing pail. She swallowed a yelp. Then, grabbing a broom, she readied to fight her way out if need be. Had she roused him from his trance? Was he alert now at the other end of this rope of silence, ready to tug her out of hiding?

He spoke again. “You all right?” he whispered.

Ruth Rose rubbed the sore spot on the back of her head. No, she wanted to answer. But he wasn’t talking to her.

“It opens up farther along,” he said. “Come on. Hoof it, guys!”

There was an urgency to his voice. He called out.

“Tuffy? Tuffy, you in there?”

Ruth Rose rocked, soaking up the whispers, her eyes squeezed shut. She knew some of this cast of characters by name only. Tabor, Tuffy, Laverne – she had no idea who they were. Then there was Hub. Hub who was dead now.

Father cleared his throat, startling her again. Her foot had gone to sleep, her head ached, the smell of the closet nauseated her. There had to be a better way.

She needed help. She frowned to herself in the dark, her fists clenched on her knees so hard her black fingernails left halfmoon wounds in her palms. She hated the idea of asking anyone for help. But there was someone. If she could just get him to listen.

Chapter 1

From the school bus Jim Hawkins caught sight of the flooded land. The bus was trundling up the cut road.

There were just the two of them: Everett behind the wheel humming a Prairie Oyster tune and Jim at his usual station, halfway back, nose pressed against the window. Not that he was looking for anything; it was just his way of staying far enough from Eager Everett to avoid a conversation.

That was how he noticed the glitter of light on water where there shouldn’t have been any.

The cut road followed the eastern property line of the Hawkins land. It was mostly mixed hardwood down that end, but there was swamp land, fed by a creek. Incognito Creek, his father had called it, because it didn’t draw much attention to itself, didn’t gurgle or splash much. Kind of like Jim himself.

But no stream, however insignificant, could avoid the detection of a beaver looking to start a home. The flood Jim had glimpsed was in a gulch where his father had cut a trail to a high grazing area at the southeast corner of the farm. The pasture was only a few acres but it would be lost to them if the beavers took the gulch. It wouldn’t be the first time they had tried. It was a natural depression, narrow necked and easy to dam.

“Podner, we gotta clear the pass of them varmints,” his father used to say, putting on his idea of a cowboy drawl.

Jim pressed his forehead hard against the cool glass of the bus window. He wasn’t sure he could handle varmints alone.

He and his mother didn’t need the southeast pasture all that much, he tried to tell himself. They’d sold off the beef cattle; could barely keep up with the few head of dairy they still had. But losing his father had been bad enough. He wasn’t about to see the land stolen out from under them. It had been Hawkins land for five generations. Hadn’t his father said that enough times?

The cut road came to a T-intersection at the Twelfth Line, and Everett turned west. Jim gathered up his stuff and made his way down the aisle. Everett caught his eye.

“Corn lookin’ good there, Jimbo. No blight. Lar Perkins, he’s got the blight. And him with his bum knee. No Geritol hockey for him this season, eh.”

Eager Everett. Eye contact was all it took to flip his switch. Jim smiled in a polite way, and the bus pulled to a stop at his driveway. Everett cranked open the doors.

“My best to your mother,” he said, tipping his Blue Jays baseball cap. He was like a jay himself once he got squawking.

The bus rumbled on up the Twelfth until it was swallowed in its own dust. Jim stood at the end of his driveway swallowed up by a memory. His father waiting right here for him with a pickaxe in one meaty hand and a long-handled spade in the other.

“You up for some counterinsurgency manoeuvres, son?” Not cowboys this time but some kind of SWAT team.

Jim had slipped off his backpack right away. “The beavers again, huh?”

His father had nodded. “Let’s take ’em out, Jimbo.”

It had been a day not unlike this, early fall. The year before his father vanished.

Jim crossed the yard and opened the back door before his mother’s shout caught up with him. He looked over towards the driveshed. She was standing in the doorway in coveralls and rubber boots, with a baseball cap on backwards and a paper mask pulled down under her chin. She held a spray can in her hand.

She made her way towards him across the yard. Behind her in the shadows of the shed stood his father’s car, a ’65 Chevy Malibu, Yuma yellow. She was touching up the bodywork. She was going to sell it. Had to.

Snoot, their six-month-old kitten, darted out the open kitchen door through Jim’s legs. He swept her up into his arms, watched his mother draw closer, saw her smile through the tiredness on her face. She was working the night shift at the factory. She clomped up onto the porch, made as if to spray him with the primer. He held up the kitten in defence. They laughed. Then he handed Snoot to her, kicked off his shoes and stepped into his rubber boots. She held the kitten like a baby, stroking her dove-grey stomach.

“Where you headed?” she asked.

“Beavers have taken the pass,” he said, trying to sound jokey and gruff.

“Want a hand?”

Jim shook his head. “I’ll take Gladys. That okay?”

His mother smiled. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. Doesn’t get much company these days.”

Jim plonked back down the steps to the yard. “ Everett sends his best,” he said without turning. He had to pass on the message, but he didn’t like it. Didn’t like men paying attention to his mother.

“Why, I think I’ll just phone him right up and ask him over for corn and potato chowder,” she said in a jaunty voice. She posed like a fashion model, glamorous in her black overalls and ball cap, her face freckled with red primer paint. “What’s the use of getting all dolled up if there aren’t any gentlemen callers,” she added, batting her eyelashes.

Jim managed a chuckle despite himself.

Gladys stood a little worse for wear in the garden.

The garden didn’t need a scarecrow any more. It was fall-weary, mostly dead but for the pumpkins and carrots. There were still withered scarlet runners clinging like arthritic fingers to the vine, winter squash, a few behemoth zucchini – nothing any bird was about to carry off.

The scarecrow wore a stained and decrepit white tux, a purple fedora and a pink fright-wig glued to a semi-deflated volleyball head.

“Hmmm,” said Jim, looking her over. “I’m trying to imagine a beaver frightened enough of you to fly away.” Gladys just grinned.

With the scarecrow on his shoulder and a shovel in his free hand, Jim walked along the tractor lane through the cornfield. Arnold Tysick and Ormond McCoy from up the line towards Onion Station had helped them plant the corn that spring and had already volunteered to help with the harvest. There hadn’t been a frost yet, but it wouldn’t be long. It took two or three good hard frosts to dry out the feed corn just right.

Jim was trying to remember stuff like that now. He had helped with the farm work since he was six or so, but he was going to have to pay special attention from now on. In the summer, his mother had found work at the Jergens soap factory in Ladybank. Money was tight. They weren’t sure what they were going to do about the farm. Hold on as best they could, for the time being. There was no way Iris Hawkins would hear of Jim dropping out of school.

“What would Hub have thought of that?” she had said to him. His father never finished grade eleven, but he regretted it all his life and made up for it as best he could. He had been an avid reader, mostly history.

“How’re you gonna know what to do if you don’t know what you did?” he used to say. And sometimes he would add in a mocking, grave tone, “Jimbo, history is all we’ve got in this God-forsaken corner of the county.”

Jim placed Gladys’s gloved hand on his left shoulder and whirled around as if they were dancing. An odd couple – he in gumboots and overalls, Gladys’s tux tails flapping in the bright fall air. He’d seen his dad dance with Gladys.

The memories came on like this sometimes, like a sweet, sad avalanche. He had learned to ride them out, not to fight them. But there had been a time when the memories had come on so fiercely that they stopped up his throat so he could hardly breathe. For three months he hadn’t been able to talk. Not a word. Only bit by bit did he get his voice back, his life back. But not Hub.

Crossing the stile into the lower meadow, Gladys’s head fell off.

“Can’t take you anywhere,” said Jim, leaning the scarecrow torso against the fence. He rescued the volleyball head from the weedy overgrowth, getting a handful of prickles for his troubles.

As he sat on the stile sucking out the pain, he noticed a Coke can in the long grass. It looked new. He picked it up, looked around. It was too early in the season for hunters. He squashed the can under his boot. Then, having nowhere else to put it, shoved it through the neck hole into Gladys’s head. There was nothing much else in there but rags and pebbles and a few dead moths. He plumped the head back onto her broom-handle neck. It rattled.

He ploughed on, getting more and more worked up. He didn’t like to think of people trespassing on the farm, didn’t like the idea of strangers sneaking around.

He stumbled on down the tractor trail into the woodland that separated the cornfields from the low swampy area. He stopped at the threshold of a shadowy place where the woods closed in tight on the road, forming a canopy that blocked the light.

This was the spot. This was where they found his car.

Jim took a deep breath, let it out slowly. His lungs filled with the heavy fragrance of cedar.

The cops found nothing. No signs of a fight. No cigarette butts, no threads – just Dad’s old Malibu, the first car he had ever bought, the keys in the ignition. Outside there was a footprint or two in the muck. They came from a pair of boots Dad always wore. Matched up exactly with footprints in the barnyard.

After the initial search, volunteers came in droves to help out. Someone found a little tube of lip balm up towards the railway tracks and everyone went crazy as if they’d found a map or something. But it belonged to one of the volunteers who’d combed that part of the woods already. Then, at the fence, they found a tiny fragment of yarn hanging from a barb. The colour matched a sweater Hub had put on that morning. In the swamp land beyond the tracks, they found more of the footprints and, finally, a mile south of the farm, at a water-filled quarry, they found one of his blue handkerchiefs. They dragged the quarry but found no body.

It was as if Hub Hawkins had been spirited away. It was as if God had dropped down in a spacecraft and whisked him off the face of the earth. “Hey, Hub, we’ve got big beaver problems in heaven. The angels are getting the skirts of their robes wet. We could use some first-hand advice.”

Jim smiled, but the smile died on him. It was harder and harder to believe his father might somehow, somewhere, still be alive. Jim remembered the tracker dogs, the choppers, the experts from Toronto, the press.

He looked up as hard and high as he could, but he saw no heaven, no angels with wet skirts. No God.

Gladys’s head fell off again. He stooped to pick it up. “You know what I think, Gladys? I think you’re kind of like God,” he said. “Something we made up to scare off the crows.”

After the authorities had given up, Jim came down here, insane with longing, cursing everyone and everything. He came again and again. Fighting back the fear of what he might find or what might find him.

It was in this cedar glade that he lost his voice. He had been looking around, hoping beyond hope he might spot some clue everyone had overlooked. He had gone to call out his father’s name – only nothing came out of his mouth.

He stopped coming. It had always been a favourite cross-country ski trail. He and his mother found other trails, not that they got out much last winter. In the summer, Lar Perkins came through with his bush hog to keep the trail passable. Never asked to be paid. But Jim never came down this way again. Not until today.

“What do ya think, Gladys?” he said. He waggled her head up and down and heard the Coke can rattle. The sound fired him up again. Then he stepped into the shadows of the glade and passed through to the light on the other side.

Before he saw the beaver pond he was walking in it. The road was squelchy wet even though it hadn’t rained for days. He rounded a curve in the rutted lane and there it was, as wide across as a football field and stretching out of sight into the alder scrub on one side and the poplar woods on the other.

A beaver emerged from the far undergrowth dragging a branch. Jim watched it for a moment. Quietly leaning Gladys against a tree, he raised the business end of the shovel to his shoulder as if it were a rifle.


With a loud slap of its tail the beaver vanished underwater. Jim pretended to blow the smoke off the mouth of the barrel.

“Take that, you lousy varmint,” he said. Then he headed around the edge of the pond through the submerged grass towards the dam site.

He knew whatever he did today wouldn’t be enough. The beavers would be back. It was like a hockey game, his father used to say. The fourth period would be sudden death.

Mud sucking at his boot heels, Jim clambered to the top of the dam and started in chopping at the latticework of branches and sticks that constituted this latest instalment of Hawkins against Nature. The dam was wattle and daub: mud interwoven with grass, weeds and supple willow canes that made the wall hard to tear apart. Putting his back into it, Jim lifted a shovel load that came up with a great sucking sound and the stench of rotten vegetation. The dammed water rushed through the breach.

He worked for a good twenty minutes without stopping. The air was still warm but the wind was freshening. The dry leaves overhead shimmered, gold-edged and dying. There was no sound but the prattle of blue jays, the squelch of muck and, loudest of all, the water gushing and splashing over his feet.

Jim straightened up, out of breath. Gladys was watching him from her resting place against a sapling birch.

There was a noise in the woods. Jim turned to look. A moment passed before a squirrel appeared on a dead log and scolded him. A hawk circled overhead, screeching. Jim craned his neck.

The racing water slowed to a trickle. He had done a pretty good job. He wasn’t sure how much more he could do. The big thing had been getting here at all.

He leaned on his shovel, sniffed the air – a great big lung-filling sniff.

“Ah, corn and potato chowder,” he said. It was the kind of thing his father would have said. A set-up for Jimbo. “Funny, all I smell is beaver poop.”

Jim sloshed his way through the cloudy remains of the pond to dry land and Gladys. He patted her on the shoulder.

“Glad,” he said. “You did such a good job this summer, you got a promotion. We want you to keep the beavers from fixing up this here dam. You think you can handle it?” Gladys wobbled her head, nodding. “Good for you,” he said. Then he picked up the scarecrow and waded back to the hole in the dam. He drove her broom-handle base down into the mud, twisting it until she stood firmly in place. Then he took a step back and looked solemnly at her grinning mug.

“Now, here’s the gross part,” he said. “Beavers don’t see so well. So – and I don’t want you to take this personal – the only way we’re going to keep those beavers away is if you smell bad. Bad as a human being.”

Gladys stared dumbly at him. He felt dumb, too – talking to a scarecrow. He remembered the first time his dad told him they were going to pee on the scarecrow.

“And that would be because we’re perverts?” Jim had said.

His father had laughed. “Not so. To a beaver, human beings stink to high heaven. Eau de wee-wee is the answer. They’ll be wary of coming too close.”

Like wolves, thought Jim, staking out their territory. Then, without further ado, he opened his zipper and let fly.

There was another disturbance in the woods while he stood there baptizing Gladys. Another squirrel, he thought, as his eyes travelled to the source of the noise.

But what he saw there wasn’t an animal – not a small one, at least. He caught a glimpse of black hair, a flash of pale skin. Enough to be certain that what he saw was a girl.

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Jim is just regaining some semblance of a normal life following his father’s sudden disappearance, when he is attacked by a crazy girl. Ruth Rose has a wild story to tell about her stepfather, the saintly Father Fisher, and needs someone to believe her - and help her prove it. Gradually Jim is convinced by Ruth Rose and they find themselves tracking a murderer and caught up in a dangerous web of secrets from a dark and unsettling past. Ruth Rose, the wild and troubled stepdaughter of the local preacher, thinks she knows the truth behind the disappearance of Jim Hawkins' father. A gripping and fast-moving plot that reveals a dangerous web of secrets from a dark and unsettling past. Longlisted for the Guardian Children's Book Prize.

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Book information

Key Stage
KS3/4 E
Accelerated Reader level
4.8 UY

Author information

Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim Wynne-Jones began his writing career one summer holiday using a rented Smith Corona electronic typewriter. He entered his first mystery thriller, "Odd’s End", for the Seal First Novel Award; it won first prize and $50,000, and Tim decided "this writing thing might be fun". Since then, he has won numerous awards including the Governor General’s Award, twice; the Canadian Library Association’s Children’s Book of the Year Award three times; the American Library Association Popular Paperback for Young Adults, and the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for The Boy in the Burning House. Tim hit the headlines and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records by taking part in the biggest author reading ever, when along with J.K. Rowling and Kenneth Oppel he read to an audience of 20,000 at the Toronto Sky Dome. Tim lives near Perth, Ontario, in a house he designed himself, which sits on 76 acres of rough and tumble landscape. Awards won by Tim Wynne-Jones: * Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award * Crime Writers of America "Edgar" Trophy for best mystery story of the year for young adults * Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award (twice) * Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature * Boston Globe-Horn Book Award * Shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize

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Press reviews

“Tim Wynne-Jones is an award wining Canadian author who has written a string of stories aimed at and narrated by teenage boys. His speciality is tales of suspense set against a background of personal loss/challenge and awakening. This particular title was shortlisted for the 2005 Guardian Children’s Book Prize. His stories are scary, insightful and well written, making them ideal for teenage boys but girls will love them too.”

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