I have been meaning to try this series for quite a while. I’m sure I’ve ‘bought’ at least one of the books when it was free on Kindle, but I can’t seem to find it now. Anyway, turns out my library has the first one in their ebook collection so, I have now borrowed it and read it.
Gertrude Chandler Warner and The Boxcar Children
Gertrude Chandler Warner was born in 1890 and was a first-grade school teacher, beginning in 1918 as men in the United States were being called up to serve in the First World War.
Having written eight books as requested by a religious organisation, in 1924 Warner decided to write one for herself, and that was The Boxcar Children.
She wrote a further seventeen books in the series between 1949 and 1976. The long gap between books one and two is because she waited until she retired from teaching before continuing the series.
Starting in 1991 the series was then continued by other authors and there are 159 books and 21 special novels, the most recent two from 2021. The original books are largely set in the 1920s and 30s, whereas the newer books are set at the time they were written.
One thing that is interesting is that in 1942 Warner rewrote the first book in order to simplify the vocabulary and shorten the story. This was to make it suitable as a ‘school reader’. It now has a prescribed vocabulary of six hundred words and a text of about 15,000 words. This is quite obvious when reading, as the vocabulary is very simple and at times repetitive.
The original 1924 text is available via Project Gutenberg as the book entered the public domain last year. I will need to at least skim-read it at some point to compare.
The Boxcar Children and The Secret Island
There is no evidence that Blyton ever read The Boxcar Children, and why should she have. Although she was a teacher herself by the time it was written, it would have been unlikely for her to have chosen an American school book for her pupils. Firstly we know that she didn’t have the highest regard for the American way of life, and secondly she wrote so much of her own teaching material that she wouldn’t have needed to look anywhere else.
Despite that, there are several similarities in the books – though the theme of children having to survive by themselves is not new, there are many books where children are orphaned, run away, or even pretend to be living alone for fun. Blyton used the plot more than once herself – there are quite a few similarities between The Secret Island and Hollow Tree House, not to mention the Five running away (temporarily) in Five Run Away Together, and of course Barney from the Barney Mysteries.
The Boxcar Children (Jessie, Henry, Violet and Benny) are orphans who are supposed to have been taken in by their grandfather after the death of their parents. However, he is their father’s father and he didn’t like our mother. So we don’t think he would like us. We are afraid he would be mean to us.
They actually haven’t met him before, as he has never visited, but they are now on the run, living like Barney, moving from place to place and doing odd-jobs for food, money and shelter.
We first meet them outside a bakery where they offer to wash the dishes in return for a night sleeping on benches in the shop. They overhear the baker’s wife saying she will keep the older three to work for her, and youngest (Benny) must go to a children’s home and so they sneak off, and evade the couple when they come after them.
It’s a bit of an odd opening, very abrupt, and reads rather like a fairy-tale story minus the magical creatures. We don’t know how long it has been since their parents died, what happened to them, any detail on how the children have been surviving… but that may be clearer in the original, unabridged version.
Despite the slightly different circumstances, then, in both The Secret Island and The Boxcar Children we have four children who are on the run from their relatives.
While the Arnold children find the very well-hidden island, the Alden children (named Cordyce in the original) find the eponymous Boxcar.
They are nearly as inventive as the Arnolds as they string up a washing line, build a fireplace outside, dam a stream to make a pool and generally make their boxcar as comfortable a place as possible to live. While Blyton’s characters generally made beds of heather and bracken (which makes sort of sense as it is springy) the Aldens made beds out of pine needles. I suppose that’s all they had to hand!
They don’t appear to have planned their running away like the Arnolds as they have very little with them to begin with, a few pieces of clothing, some soap, Violet’s workbag, and towels all kept in a large laundry bag. This means they scavenge at a dump for cracked crockery and rusty cutlery when setting up their home.
While Jack goes off to market days to sell berries and mushrooms, Henry (not the oldest, I believe, but the oldest boy…) goes into town and finds work at a doctor’s home, picking cherries and mowing the lawn and so on. Jessie, as the oldest girl is the ‘housekeeper’, though she has to wait for Henry to come home to light a fire for her.
Just like in The Secret Island, suspicions develop over this boy who doesn’t seem to have a home, especially when all four children help at the doctor’s home and then an advert appears in the newspaper looking for four missing children…
One thing that isn’t similar is the food. The Arnolds don’t eat as well as say, the Famous Five, but they do not badly. They have fresh eggs and milk, flour to bake rolls, plenty of berries and mushrooms, fresh fish from the lake, plus all the lettuces and vegetables they manage to grow themselves. The Aldens have to buy in all their food, though I imagine if they lived in the Boxcar longer then they might have started cultivating their own. Instead they eat a lot of bread and milk, some cheese and blueberries, and Henry also buys some meat and is able to take some vegetables home from the doctor’s garden to make a stew.
The sense of danger is more muted for the Aldens than the Arnolds. They are eager to avoid their grandfather but they have not the fear of being treated as cruelly as the Arnolds have already experienced. They do hear a noise one night outside the Boxcar, and the dog they have found growls, so there is a brief period of tension but that’s all. They are unaware that the grandfather has put an advert in the paper, and as he lives in another town he is quite a distant threat as compared to the Arnolds aunt and uncle, and the men who come to search the island.
One last similarity is that both sets of children are being looked for by someone kind. For the Arnold children it is their parents who are hunting for them, not the aunt and uncle. For the Aldens it turns out that their grandfather is a kindly man who has made every effort to make his house comfortable for them.
I enjoyed the story although I feel that is is a real shame that the reprint has been so dumbed down. Having looked at the first page or two of the original it is much better.
The original begins with the children and their father moving to a new town, and their father is a drunk. He’s dead within a paragraph and their neighbour (the baker’s wife again) stays with them overnight and plans to send Benny to the children’s home. They run away that night – packing a bag with the things we see them with in the reprint. So although it is still quite abrupt it all makes a bit more sense, and the events are clearer.
Based on that, and the few other bits I stopped and read I would definitely recommend reading the original edition.
Although I like the style of the original illustrations there are only four and they make five year old Benny look like a toddler!
It’s interesting that Blyton has been heavily criticised for the simplicity of her language while Warner deliberately kept the vocabulary limited – far more limited than anything I’ve read of Blyton’s. Warner does talk to the reader at least once, though (The children would have more than milk and bread, as you will soon see) which Blyton did quite often.
I’d like to read a few more of these to see if the rest are overly simple, or if she went back to her original style. Of course I want to check out one or two new ones to compare, as well.
I’m interested to see how the story continues as – mild spoilers ahead – the Boxcar has been moved somewhere new and is to be just a playhouse for the children, so it will no longer be a survival story. The rest of the novels are billed as mystery stories, much like the Secret Series which went from a survival story to mysteries.