Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rereads: The Boxcar Children


This is the first in an occasional series in which we reread mysteries we remember fondly and see how they hold up.

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (1942)

Summary: The four Alden children (Henry, 14, Jessie, 12, Violet, 10, and Benny, 6) are orphans who run away because they are convinced that their grandfather, who didn't like their mother, won't like them either. They find an abandoned boxcar in the woods and set it up as a house; Henry tries to support the family by doing yard work and odd jobs. A local doctor hires him and soon figures out his secret. Eventually, the doctor hatches a plan to reunite the children with their grandfather - who, of course, turns out to be delightful and not scary at all.

Then: I loved the Boxcar Children books when I was a kid, although I think I got into them a little later than I should have - I was also reading much harder things around the time I remember reading these. I think I loved them mainly for the old-fashioned atmosphere - the clothes, the meals, the idealized way of life.

Now: The first thing that really struck me when I reread this the other day was that it actually isn't a mystery at all. The rest of the series are mysteries, but this first one is... an adventure story, I guess. I'd sort of forgotten that. I still love the old-fashioned atmosphere, and this held up pretty well, overall. It's so very unrealistic, which I might not have realized as much as a kid. And scary! These kids are basically homeless, on their own in an unfamiliar town. (And how did they get there? Who let them leave wherever they were before? I really wanted that part of the story.) I was also struck by how strict the gender roles were - but it was published in 1942, after all. The children are all very, very duty-conscious, and the older ones, especially, seem to have no faults. I don't remember whether they get less perfect in later books - I'll have to read a few more soon.

Verdict: A little dated, but well-written, engaging, and full of enough action to hook today's kids.

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