This week I re-read Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children by listening to it on MP3. It's finally stopped raining in northern California (skipping right over spring to summer, pretty much), and yesterday I just kept walking until I finished the book.
The Railway Children was originally published in 1906. It's different from many of Edith Nesbit's books, in that it doesn't feature any magic. The Railway Children is the story of three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis. At the start of the story, the children live with their loving parents in a nice, modern house in London. Their lives change drastically, however, when their Father is called away unexpectedly and mysteriously. Their Mother takes them to live in an older house in the country, with only a single part-time servant, where they quickly realize that they are now poor. Mother spends all her time writing stories and poems, to submit them for publication, instead of playing games with them and teaching them, as she had done previously. The children are left largely to their own devices, with no lessons to distract them.
The house that they live in, Three Chimney's, is located near to a railway line and a small railway station. The railway quickly becomes a source of friends. The Stationmaster and the Porter (most especially the Porter, Perks) become major figures in the children's lives, as does a friendly "Old Gentleman" who waves to them every morning from the 9:15 train.
And the adventures begin. Through bravery and ingenuity (and through the coincidence of always being in the right place at the right time), the children avert not one, not two, but three separate disasters. They also get into trouble through their innocent attempts to help their Mother, and through their own sibling rivalries, and eventually help a Russian stranger newly escaped to England. Through it all, they miss their Father, and wonder what's happened to him, and why their Mother is so sad.
The constant adventures in this book make it a lot of fun. It does feel a little bit dated in places. There's a scene in which the local doctor tells Peter to be kinder to his sisters, for example, because they are "so much softer and weaker" than he is. But overall, I think that Edith Nesbit did a wonderful job of making the girls strong characters, too. The youngest, Phyllis, reminds me a lot of one of my nieces, while the oldest, Bobbie, takes on much responsibility bravely. As for Peter, he misses having another male in the household, and acts out quite a bit in response.
This book has lots of messages about bravery and right and wrong, and what makes up charity vs. friendship. And how to be good without being priggish. Some modern-day children might find it a little bit preachy in this area, though it is generally lightened with humor. But hopefully the adventures, and the realistic imperfections of the children, will win new readers over anyway. I know that I love this book (despite having a slight problem with the number of coincidences) and that the end brings tears to my eyes. If you haven't read it, The Railway Children is well worth checking out.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.