Thursday, January 27, 2011

"The Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Summary: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny's parents have died, and now they are without a home.  Wandering around, they find an abandoned boxcar in the woods, and they decide to stay.  With Henry working for the kindly Dr. Moore, the children create a happy life for themselves.

Musings: I've mentioned before that as a child I wanted to live in the woods.  This is the game I played most with my friends (e.g., we'd collect acorns for "food" or build a "raft" out of wooden planks found in the creek).  And although I consumed most of the kid-living-alone-in the wilderness genre of the time (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins), rereading The Boxcar Children has cemented the fact that nearly everything I believed about living in the wild came from this one book.

Of course, this is because in The Boxcar Children, living alone outside has all the wonderful benefits and none of the pesky disadvantages.  The children make a cozy, warm home in the boxcar, they cook delicious stews over their stone fireplace, and they even have a "refrigerator"--a recess behind a waterfall that keeps food cold.  Their days are spent on wonderful crafts (I should also mention I was a bit craft obsessed as a child), making a broom, a cart, or a stuffed animal.  They even build a swimming pool in one fun Sunday!  And a stray dog wanders in and becomes their friend!  Without the distractions of hunger, dirtiness, disease, or cold, it's an idyllic life.  It's pure fantasy, but for children, it's also a great way to show the power of the imagination and the ability to create much out of what is already around you.

Everyone in the book is friendly and goodhearted, from the never-grumpy children to the benevolent Dr. and Mrs. Moore and the children's previously unknown grandfather.  This of course means the book has to completely avoid some basic questions (How did the children's parents die?  If they were so friendly and nice, why did no one look after them?  Why hadn't their grandfather been in their life?  Why don't they seem particularly traumatized by losing their parents?).

My least favorite part of the book as a child was the ending, where the children go to live happily with their grandfather.  Although the grandfather eventually transports the boxcar to his property, it's just not the same.  The children are safely guarded by a parental figure and snug in a real home and real beds.  There's no living in the woods adventure, even though the series continued for another 100-something books.

Like other children's books of the day (the first book was originally published in 1924), The Boxcar Children is more about moralizing than realism, so the goody-two-shoes nature of the book can be a little eye-rolling, though I didn't find it nearly so grating as that of The Secret Garden (another childhood favorite which stood up less well on reread).  In fact, overall I found the novel quite enjoyable, and I think it would be a great read-aloud/read-together book for the early elementary set.

I've classified the novel as "young adult" because I don't have a separate children's tag; Amazon says the reading level is 9-12, though I would think it would be appropriate more for the younger end.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.


  1. I remember being a bit 'older' than the recommended reading age when I first found this book, because my mother was reading it aloud to my little brothers. But I agree - it was very fun, and definitely encouraged outdoors living and experimenting, although of course the dose of realism was low. Another of my favorites along those lines was Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost, though that is for a slightly older audience. Nice review!

  2. The title A Girl of the Limberlost sounds really familiar, yet I don't think I've actually read it. I'll have to give it a try!

  3. "How did the children's parents die? Why don't they seem particularly traumatized by losing their parents?"

    These two questions have been bugging me as well. Perhaps it is time for a prequel to explain what happened to the parents...


  4. I love this books.I cried when there parents died and they had to run away.I first discover it when i was in school.At first I thougth it was bad.