Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reader's Diary #1075- Gertrude Chandler Warner: The Boxcar Children

I know for some folks, even kids today, Gertrude Chandler Warner's Boxcar Children series has been as much a part of their childhood as Nancy Drew, Archie Comics, and The Baby-Sitters Club has been for others. This I only found out as an adult. Somehow the series escaped me as a child, or at the very least I have no recollection of ever coming across it in my younger years.

Perhaps that would have made a difference— nostalgia gives almost everything a rosy glow (not the Dukes of Hazzard, unfortunately). As it stands, reading it now the book seems very dated. Originally written in 1924, that's not surprising, but what is surprising is that I use that term negatively. Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, those books are dated too, but I still find them enjoyable— perhaps even more so because of the dated quality. But the secret to why it matters here was revealed to me in the author bio at the end of the book. Chandler, we're told, discovered that "many readers who like an exciting story could find no books that were both easy and fun to read." It's that "easy to read" bit that highlights the first issue I had with the book. The language is very overly simplified to the point of coming across as unnatural. This is especially true of the dialogue that reads like an old Dick and Jane book, where easy reading apparently meant people were afraid of contractions. Warner didn't forgo the contraction altogether, but they were used sparingly and people were left sounding oddly formal, even for a book set in a time when people did talk differently. "Come to bed now. You must be tired with all that work, and I am tired, too."

Another issue I had was with the overly perfect children. Maybe we overdo the bratty-but-witty kids in modern media, but I know there wasn't a time in history when children got along with one another as well as they did in the first Boxcar Children book. Hardworking, full of smiles, and always looking out for one another. Good qualities to be sure, but when every child is this squeaky clean it eventually comes across as unnatural and flat. 

Apparently the series eventually turns out to be more mystery-oriented (and taken on by other authors once Warner died), but in this book the story the plot revolves around four orphans who decide to set up home in an abandoned boxcar. The only mystery here seems unintentional. Not wanting to be discovered by their grandfather, they eventually are and it turns out he's a wonderful man and they have a caregiver once again. Oddly though, the reason they fear him initially is that he disliked their mother so much that he had never ever visited them. This rather dark and out-of-place character portrayal is never revisited or explained. Why did he dislike their mother so much? Maybe the issue is revisited in later volumes. Alas, the happy ending here ignores it entirely.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have heard of this series, but never read it. And it sounds like I lucked out, as I had more than enough Dick and Jane in grade 1.

Michelle said...

This is a great series, but it is most definitely geared towards kids. It was popular because of the ideals it showed children. Much like Leave It To Beaver and even The Brady Bunch showed ideal versions of family life - what people wanted to see rather than what was. I know my daughter has thoroughly enjoyed reading this series in recent months. I wouldn't pick it up again now if she paid me, but it does have its purpose.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I didn't have Dick and Jane. I had Pat, Cathy, and most importantly, Mr. Mugs.

Michelle: I've also known modern kids to have enjoyed them, so I won't deny that they still hold some appeal in their, as you describe it, idealistic ways.