Reading Diary: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
They were just in time. . . They rolled the door shut and then it really began to rain . . . The children could hear it on the top of the boxcar, but no rain came in.
"What a good place this is!" said Violet. "It is just like a warm little house with one room."
After awhile the rain and lightning and thunder stopped, and the wind did not blow so hard. Then Henry opened the door and looked out. All the children looked out into the woods. The sun was shining, but some water still fell from the trees. In front of the boxcar a pretty little brook ran over the rocks, with a waterfall in it.
"What a beautiful place!" said Violet.
"Henry!" cried Jessie. "Let's live here!"
That "updated" 70s cover always makes me cringe. It's the main reason I passed this book over for years. I don't know how I overlooked it two weeks ago, while helping one of my ESL tutees find a summer read that was both appropriate for her level and not challenging in the wrong way. (Too many "easy" MG and YA novels have too much slang or too many references to the pop culture of a country she has never visited.) And it turns out that one mustn't judge a book by you-know-what, inasmuch the story of the four Alden orphans, who must work and set up housekeeping for themselves, has proven to be just the thing.
And did you know that Gertrude Chandler Warner was also a teacher, with a similar problem finding books for her students? She actually rewrote every chapter of this book as often as it took to make sure it was both exciting and easy.
Say all you like about Juvenile Series books being formulaic: that's precisely what I like about them. (It's also what I like about sonnets. Form is fabulous.)
While The Boxcar Children turned out to be the first of a whole franchise--the book that set the formula rather than one of the books challenged to come up with a unique variation of the same--many of its elements were already familiar tropes in children's literature. Orphans and other children in peril have always been popular, of course. Warner just takes the traditional "babes in the wood" and puts them in an abandoned train car. And when I was reading, I kept thinking back to Little Women (which I once loved) and The Story of the Treasure Seekers (which I once tried to love).
Apparently, it takes a nineteenth century publication date
to be safe from "updated" cover art!
The hardy, resourceful Alden siblings certainly call to mind Louisa May Alcott's poor but hardworking March sisters. It has partly to do with superficial connections (e.g., there being four of each), but I suspect the real resemblance comes from something ineffably New England. This makes Edith Nesbit's fanciful Bastable children of Victorian England very distant cousins to the Aldens, who are happy enough with a day's fair wages and wouldn't waste time on treasure hunting that could be spent on good housekeeping. (LOL!)
I thought this book was charming and cute; and if I had read it as a child, it would have influenced a great deal of my play. The only thing I didn't care for was the neglect of Violet as a character. When they set up housekeeping, Henry becomes the responsible breadwinner, Jessie becomes the efficient domestic manager, and Benny plays at being the baby to the hilt. Violet? She falls ill.
It's a major plot point, yes: in fact, it forces the climax. As all minimally supervised children know, it's all fun and games until someone gets sick. And then you have to call an adult. =P
But one wishes for a bit more balance, you know? Alcott gives shy and frail Beth March a real character arc--and Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin lets even "cry baby" Mary Anne Spier have some bright moments on the job. It seems that Warner could have been a bit more generous to Violet. But this is a minor quibble about an otherwise decently structured story.
I have the second book in this series, Surprise Island, all lined up to review . . . but if you're feeling even half as Boxcar-ed out as I am, then you'll be pleased to know I won't be putting it up until next month!
Image Source: a) The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, b) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, c) The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit