Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Boxcar Children - Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Boxcar Children (1924) was my mom's favorite childhood read, but for some reason, she didn't read it to my brother or me.  I finally got it done, and now I don't know if I would have liked it as a child or not.  I think I would have.  I liked old-fashioned stories, stories about orphans and plenty of descriptions of food and finding cool places to live.

As an adult, The Boxcar Children seems musty and dated.  Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny are a little bit too good to be true.  They seem like paper dolls that Gertrude Chandler Warner cut out and arranged prettily.  Her authorial intrusion felt like heavy, adenoidal breathing over my shoulder as I tried to concentrate.  The language is stilted and insultingly dumbed-down.  I'm with E.B. White who said something something like if you lob challenging words at children, they intercept them quickly and smash them back over the net with great force.

Here's where Warner lost me:  Henry leaves his siblings in the boxcar in the woods and goes into town to find work.  He earns a dollar or two and buys food and a tablecloth.  He gives the tablecloth to Jessie, warning her that "It's not hemmed."  Please.  Even back in the 1920s, did boys generally notice if tablecloths were hemmed or not?  Did they even care?  Upon reflection, I suppose that the clerk at the store pointed this out to Henry, but by then my need for verisimilitude was overwhelming me.  I wanted someone to get smacked or arrested.

I'm charmed by the idea of the little red boxcar somewhere in Connecticut that is a museum devoted to Gertrude Chandler Warner and her literary creations, but a whole linen chest full of hemmed tablecloths could not induce me to read any more about the Aldens.


Tami said...

I am surprised by your review. Not because I disagree - I've never read the book - but because I recall a series of Boxcar Children books that my kids liked 15 years ago. I see now that they are "based on" the original.

It's also surprising for a book that has received that much acclaim to be so bad. Maybe in the 1920's children weren't given credit for their intelligence? And I agree about the hemmed tablecloth. My 51-year-old husband wouldn't notice, much less a child.

Now I'm off to look up "verisimilitude". :)

Jeane said...

I know I read this as a kid, but now I remember almost nothing about it- except that they lived in a boxcar of course, and I thought that was cool. I wonder if I'd have a similar experience to yours were I to read it now.

Jenny said...

Maybe their parents were really into hemmed tablecloths. Maybe it was one of those things, like that they would come home from visiting a friend and their mother would say "Tsk! It was kind of Mrs. Waugh to look after you children while I had my hair permed, but good heavens, her tablecloth was unhemmed! The Waughs live like animals!"

Carrie#K said...

Jenny said it for me, in a much more clever way at that. LOL!

Kathleen said...

I read the first in the series when I was about 9. I remember liking it then but it doesn't sound very appealing to me now at the age of 48!

Unruly Reader said...

I adored this book as a kid, but then again, I was the sort of child who would read *anything.*

The thing I remember thinking was: How cool: They get to play house -- only for real. Then I'd feel guilty because I was feeling envious of orphans, and that seemed very wrong.

Then there was this whole mystery series that followed, and I gobbled those up, too. I hadn't met Nancy (Drew -- we're on a first name basis) yet.

Jenny said...

My daughter read the first one of these, and then another one called "Mystery Ranch," where the ranch turned out to be chock full of uranium. (Mysterious!) Geiger counters clicking away and everything, but no sense whatsoever that this might be bad for the health. It was the weirdest thing ever. And extremely heavy-handed, as you say.