In 1942, the world was introduced to four orphan children, two boys and two girls, who ran away from the grandfather they thought hated them. With practically nothing but their wits, ingenuity, positive attitudes, love for each other, and hard work, they forged a home out of a boxcar. Half a century later, I listened to my dad read of their adventures book after book as we embarked on the mysteries of The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner.
Now, my own children have vast numbers of books they read or I read to them. Last month, on one of our excursions to Barnes and Noble, we spotted The Boxcar Children, and I got it to pass on the story. My children were much like me at their age, finding it funny when Benny cuts a “J” into the dog, Watch’s, coat since he belongs to his sister, Jessie, or thrilled when Henry wins the footrace, worried when Violet gets sick. But as an adult becoming much more versed in children’s fiction since a vast number of our bookshelves are now dedicated to it, I glimpsed something very different and rather unique in The Boxcar Children.
A lot of books these days are fun. They cover a huge scope of sciences, mythology, superheroes, legend, and history. But I’ve yet to read a book with the strength of morals and values that The Boxcar Children gives. The Boxcar Children isn’t even about morals or values, but they are so naturally a part of the world the book was written in that they’re impossible to avoid. And the lessons underpinning the story are ones I’ve yet to see in more modern fiction. Let me give some examples.
1) The Importance of Family: This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the whole book. Not only do the children all look out for each other, but the climax hinges on the children realizing that what they’d come to believe about their grandfather was far from true, that he loves them and wants to look out for them.
2) Hard Work Brings Prosperity: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny have practically nothing when the book begins. Yet they make the best of their circumstances. They take nothing without working for it. When they find the boxcar, they spend weeks building a shelf, a fireplace, and putting together basic essentials of life, which they greet with enthusiastic gratitude and grace. While the younger children build onto their new home, Henry finds work in a nearby town to provide food for their humble table. He never takes anything without asking first, even the throwaway vegetables he thins from a garden for pay. And all the children approach work with a willing heart and eager hands.
3) Gratefulness: All this leads naturally into the next lesson: gratitude. Compared to most of us, what the children have in this book is abominably little. Yet every scrap they salvage into something usable is treated with care and treasured. They find beauty in the old dishes they salvage from a dump and find solace in the seclusion of the boxcar. in every gift of small vegetables or an excess of eggs. Everything for them is a gift and a cause for appreciation.
These are just a few of the good underpinnings of the book. Historically speaking, as this book was written just after The Great Depression and at a time when the whole world was going to war, it’s no wonder it takes some of these approaches toward appreciating what we have, valuing family, and hard work. As a modern American, however, I look at these and think how nice it would be to encourage such values in our time too, and for that, The Boxcar Children will remain on my shelf to share with successive generations.