Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)

Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis (Phil) have never been poor before, but when their father must go away unexpectedly, they and their mother move to a more modest home in the country. There isn’t much to do in their new, smaller house, and their mother is always busy writing stories to make ends meet, so the children often find themselves visiting the railway station. There they have many adventures: making friends with Perks the porter, waving to a particular old gentleman who rides the train past their station every day, and even saving a train from a very bad accident! All the while the three children are kept in the dark about where their father really is. When Bobbie finds out by mistake, she uses her railway connections to sort things out and, hopefully, bring her father home.

My husband has been nagging me to read this book for months, and I kept putting it off because I was one hundred percent sure it was an old, sad orphan story. I was completely wrong about this, as it turns out. There is some sadness in the book, but the kids are not orphans, and though the story is now over 100 years old, it reads more like a 1950s children’s novel, such as those written by Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright. It is certainly somewhat old-fashioned compared to contemporary middle grade novels - the children dress in early 1900s garb, they watch a “paper chase” in one chapter, and they lack the modern sources of news and communication that would have made it much easier for them to learn of their father’s whereabouts during his long absence. The narrator also sometimes addresses the reader directly, which is not very common in contemporary kids’ books (unless they’re written by Lemony Snicket.) Even so, the dialogue between the characters sounds very contemporary, and many of the children’s arguments and conversations could easily happen in any group of 21st century children I have met.

The story itself is well-written without being difficult to read. The characters come vividly to life mostly in the way they speak, and each chapter’s adventure moves swiftly by. It is extremely unlikely that any group of kids would have so many opportunities to save lives and cheer up those in need, and it did bother me toward the end of the book that a country town where nothing ever happens could suddenly be the center of so much excitement. Still, kids reading this book would no doubt enjoy seeing kids their own age becoming heroes, no matter how unlikely those events might actually be. They will also relate to the kids’ desire not to seem like pious goody-goodies, and to the mistakes they make along the way.

The Railway Children is to railroads what Swallows and Amazons is to sailboats. Any child who has ever been fascinated by trains will fall in love with the railway station along with Bobbie, Peter, and Phil, and they will enjoy feeling like part of their family. Recommend The Railway Children to realistic fiction readers who enjoy family stories, adventure, and emotional happy endings.

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