Book: The Boy in the Burning House

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The Boy in the Burning House

Author: Tim Wynne-Jones
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Two years after his father’s mysterious disappearance, Jim Hawkins is coping—barely. Underneath, he’s frozen in uncertainty and grief. What did happen to his father? Is he dead or just gone? Then Jim meets Ruth Rose. Moody, provocative, she’s the bad-girl stepdaughter of Father Fisher, Jim’s father’s childhood friend and the town pastor, and she shocks Jim out of his stupor when she tells him her stepfather is a murderer. “Don’t you want to know who he murdered?” she asks. Jim doesn’t. Ruth Rose is clearly crazy—a sixteen-year-old misfit. Yet something about her fierce conviction pierces Jim’s shell. He begins to burn with a desire for the truth, until it becomes clear that it may be more unsettling than he can bear. What is the real meaning of the strange prayers Father Fisher intones behind the door of his private sanctuary? Why does Ruth Rose suddenly disappear? And what really happened thirty years ago when a boy died in a burning house?


From its opening scene, in which a teenage girl overhears her stepfather’s creepy confessions, to its terrifying conclusion in a deserted mine shaft, Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Boy in the Burning House has the magnetic energy of a well-crafted made-for-television thriller, without pausing for commercial breaks. Like the best of the TV thrillers, The Boy in the Burning House features a smiling, unredeemable villain: Father Fisher, who leads the Church of the Blessed Transfiguration in a remote farming community.

Fourteen-year-old Jim Hawkins’s father, Hub, has disappeared, and Ruth Rose, the pastor’s stepdaughter, tries to convince him that Fisher killed Hub. If that possibility isn’t unsavory enough, Jim discovers that his dad and Fisher were both involved in a fire that killed another teenage boy 30 years before. It is the unraveling of this long-hidden mystery that gives The Boy in the Burning House its page-turning edginess. As Jim investigates his father’s past, his memories of a gentle and morally upright father are twisted out of shape. “He felt like he was burning up,” Wynne-Jones writes, “and there was a boy inside him hammering to get out into the air.”

As the novel roars towards its conclusion, some of its psychological richness and narrative consistency are sacrificed to fast-paced action sequences. Fisher’s midnight stalking of Jim and Ruth Rose is as terrifying as Jack Nicholson’s frenzied house crawl in The Shining, but Wynne-Jones never fully explains how Fisher became a monster. The Boy in the Burning House is a great read, but one that starts to wobble like a house of cards once the thrills are over. —Lisa Alward

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