When Jim first meets Ruth Rose, she is wild and abrasive. The accusations she makes about her stepfather, and her insinuations about Jim’s own father, repel Jim. But then he starts to notice some distinctly odd things about Father Fisher, and he begins to wonder if Ruth Rose might be right, about the pastor at least. What is the relationship between Father Fisher, Jim’s father and a teenage arsonist who burned himself to death in a hay-filled house when all three were children?
The Boy in the Burning House is a remarkably immersive experience. In a few short pages, Wynne-Jones has manages to paint the setting (a small family farm near a Canadian township) and rich characters. Consider, for example, the following sentence from near the beginning of chapter 1:
Incognito creek, his father had called it, because it didn’t draw much attention to itself, didn’t gurgle or splash much.
Not only does Wynne-Jones draw a simple but vivid picture, he also manages to illuminate Jim’s father’s personality, and by virtue of the particular selection of memories, Jim’s feelings towards his father too. Subtle touches like this permeate the book and make Wynne-Jones’s writing so three-dimensional.
In Ruth Rose and Jim Hawkins, Wynne-Jones has created an electric and challenging pair of lead characters. Ruth Rose is difficult, aggressive and sometimes even violent. She has a reputation for being deluded (a reputation that Father Fisher is keen to remind everyone of). Jim idolises his father and is unwilling to consider any suggestions that he may not have been perfect. He has only recently come back from the self-destructive depression brought about by his father’s presumed death. Trust between them is a fragile and easily-broken thing, but it’s key if they are to unravel the mystery.
Wynne-Jones doesn’t neglect the supporting characters either. Jim’s mother, Father Fisher, Ruth Rose’s mother, Jim’s dead father, and even Jim’s school-bus driver--each are fully-fleshed and believable. I remember attending a panel at the Glasgow WorldCon where George R.R. Martin talked about writing minor characters. According to Martin, every character, no matter how minor needs to have a complete story of their own. Although their story may intersect the main story only very briefly, each of them is the hero of their own, equally-important story. Wynne-Jones obviously believes in the same principle and applies it to great effect.
You won’t be surprised by the way the mystery itself turns out (although there are some revelations), but then that’s not really the point of the novel. It’s a story about whether two teenagers so widely distrusted can manage to convince the rational adults around them that the much-admired pastor has a dark background. It’s a people book, about trust, prejudices, characters trying to do their best in difficult circumstances and how powerless children can be in the face of a powerful, unscrupulous adult.
If you’re interested in rich, character-driven books, then I’d strongly recommend The Boy in the Burning House.