63 pages 2 hours read

Mary Downing Hahn

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story, first published in 2004 by Clarion Books, is one of several ghost stories for young adults written by Mary Downing Hahn. The novel received multiple state-level awards, including the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award (Vermont), the Golden Sower Award (Nebraska), and the Volunteer State Book Award (Tennessee). The story explores friendship and forgiveness through two unusual siblings.

Mary Downing Hahn is a Washington D.C. native and former librarian who has written over 30 novels since her first novel, The Sara Summer, was published in 1979.

This guide is based on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Clarion Books) reprint published in 2007.

Plot Summary

Oak Hill Manor, known as the “old Willis place” to locals, is an abandoned mansion that has been decaying for 10 years since the death of its owner, Miss Lilian Willis. The mansion is allegedly haunted by the ghosts of two children. 12-year-old Diana and her 8-year-old brother, Georgie, have lived on the grounds of the old Willis place for as long as they can remember. The siblings spend their days playing in the woods without worrying about a set bedtime or school. They have no parents or friends, but they have each other and their black cat, Nero.

Diana and Georgie’s personal rules are put to the test with the arrival of new landlord, Mr. Morrison, his young daughter, Lissa, and their dog, Macduff. The story begins with Diana and Georgie hiding in the woods, observing the newcomers move into the caretaker’s trailer from afar. Diana finds herself wanting to befriend Lissa—much to Georgie’s dismay.

While the newcomers sleep, Diana and Georgie take Lissa’s bike for a ride. Diana rides first but stops short of the front gate; Georgie takes his turn and crashes into a tree. The siblings hide the broken bike in the woods, hoping that Lissa will assume it was stolen.

Back at the trailer, Lissa writes in her diary, expressing her own desire for a friend (and mentioning the stolen bike). She is homeschooled, and she and her father have moved several times since her mother’s death years ago. It is revealed through the diary that Miss Lilian Willis died and wasn’t discovered for a week.

When Diana finally gains the courage to break her and Georgie’s rules and make herself seen, a frightened Lissa calls her dog to attack. Diana retreats to the woods, weeping. When Georgie learns what happened, he makes Diana promise that she won’t speak to Lissa again.

Restless, Diana sneaks away from a sleeping Georgie and returns to Lissa’s trailer. She reads Lissa’s diary and realizes why the other girl was so frightened: Lissa mistook the disheveled Diana for a monster. Diana writes in Lissa’s diary, apologizing for reading it and asking to meet on a bench by the old Willis place.

Diana breaks into the old Willis place and steals clothes and soap from Miss Lilian’s room. Georgie mocks Diana when she decides to bathe in the property’s pond. He notices Diana’s new clothes and accuses her of sneaking into the old Willis place because of Lissa; the girl denies it. Georgie runs off, but Diana doesn’t follow. She returns to Lissa’s trailer and hides. Eventually, Lissa appears and announces to a hidden Diana that she will meet her the next day.

When Diana and Lissa formally meet, the latter is astonished that the former is the same person whom she saw before. Diana weaves a fabricated life for herself, pretending that her parents are strict and that she and Georgie live across the street. Georgie suddenly runs out of the woods, screaming at Lissa to stay away from his sister—to no avail.

As Diana and Lissa grow closer, the former’s lies and relationship with Georgie spiral out of control. Despite Diana’s pleas, Lissa breaks into the old Willis place. Lissa rummages through Miss Lilian’s things and plays her piano. She approaches the parlor, the room where Miss Lilian died. As if controlled by an outside force, Lissa opens the parlor door, freeing Miss Lilian’s ghost. Feeling betrayed, Diana returns to Georgie in the woods.

Georgie asks Diana to describe their past in full, no matter how painful: Decades ago, their parents worked for Miss Lilian. One day, they entered Oak Hill Manor to look for their mother, and an irritated Miss Lilian gave chase. The siblings hid in the basement, and Miss Lilian locked them in. They shouted and waited for someone to find them, but no one came.

Eventually, Diana and Georgie died and “woke up” outside Oak Hill Manor. Their (now) personal rules came to mind: “Rule One: Do not let anyone see you. Rule Two: Do not leave Oak Hill Manor” (129). As much as Diana and Georgie wished to comfort their grieving parents, they felt bound to the rules.

During this time, Miss Lilian was mysteriously absent from Oak Hill Manor. Upon returning, she denied knowing anything about the missing Diana and Georgie. The siblings’ parents were eventually relieved of their positions and left the mansion, heartbroken. Diana and Georgie remained the same age and played pranks on Miss Lilian for revenge. With Miss Lilian’s death, they made new rules: “Rule Three: Stay away from the house. Rule Four: Do not disturb Miss Lilian’s slumber” (136). Lissa’s arrival led to three of the four rules being broken. With the release of Miss Lilian’s ghost, Diana and Georgie fear they will never know peace.

Diana and Georgie realize they must deal with Miss Lilian and their physical bodies in the old Willis place’s cellar. Diana informs Lissa, who is frightened but promises to tell her father about the bodies; Mr. Morrison discovers the bodies shortly after. The police arrive and take the remains away to be buried next to those of the children’s parents. Diana is crushed to hear this, as she had secretly hoped that her parents were still alive.

Diana and Georgie hide from Miss Lilian, but she eventually catches them and forces them to listen to her side of the story: After she locked the children in the basement, she had a stroke and collapsed on the stairs. She was in the hospital for months, unable to speak. She never intended to kill Diana and Georgie and was too proud to admit it upon realizing what happened.

Miss Lilian ends her story with an apology. Diana and Georgie know that if they are to move on, they must forgive Miss Lilian and apologize for tormenting her. Upon doing so, a bright light fills the sky. The ghosts of Diana and Georgie’s parents appear by the locked front gate; all five ghosts walk into the light and disappear. The novel ends with a final diary entry from Lissa, who witnessed it all. While Lissa is sad to see Diana go, she is excited about the new life that awaits her, as she and her father will be moving to a place where there are more children her age.