Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Guest Post by Wendy McClure - The History Mystery of the Boxcar Children

The basic story details about The Boxcar Children are easy enough to recall—four orphaned siblings, a dog named Watch, an abandoned boxcar in the woods. Ask anyone who knows the story and they’ll tell you.

And if you ask them when the story takes place, they might scrunch up their faces trying to remember, and an awful lot will say, “During the Great Depression, right?”

Wrong! Well, sort of: in The Boxcar Children, author Gertrude Chandler Warner never indicates a specific era, though clearly from the black-and-white illustrations it’s a time when kids wore quaint, high-topped shoes and some small-town folks still traveled by horse-drawn carts. It could be pretty much any time in the early 20th Century after automobiles were in use (since Dr. Moore and Mr. Alden drive them). While it could be the 1930s, there’s no mention of times being hard in Greenfield, where folks appear to be happily employed at Mr. Alden’s mill.  And yet the idea that The Boxcar Children is a Depression-era story endures, and for the past fifteen years that I’ve been at Albert Whitman I regularly encounter people—librarians, booksellers, people who read the books as kids—who think this is the case.

I always thought I understood why: after all, the Alden children make the best of their homelessness, scavenging things from a junk heap and cooking a delicious stew from odds and ends. The spirit of The Boxcar Children is perfectly compatible with Depression-era values of resourcefulness, “making do,” and pressing on in the face of adversity. This association was further cemented in the early 2000s, when the Plays for Young Audiences adaptation of The Boxcar Children was first launched with Barbara Field’s script definitively setting the story in the 1930s.

It makes perfect sense, of course. But Warner never claimed The Boxcar Children to be a survival story about the 30s. Rather, she said it was inspired by her childhood dream of living in a train car—a dream that came from watching trains pass right by her house when she was a little girl in Putnam, Connecticut. She developed the story twice—first, in 1924, when the novel The Box-Car Children was first published. Then, in 1942, while working as a teacher consultant for the textbook company Scott Foresman, she wrote The Boxcar Children, the beginning-reader-friendly version of the story that we know today.

Warner published sequels to The Boxcar Children beginning in 1949 and continuing until the 1970s (she passed away in 1979). The Aldens of those books (and the ones that continue to be written today) have lived in “the present day” for decades—sporting crew cuts and flips in the books written in the 50s and 60s, and cargo pants in the 80s books. When you look at the series as a whole it’s as obvious as Benny Alden’s bellbottom trousers in The Bus Station Mystery that Warner meant the books to be adventure stories, not historical ones.

Still, the associations with the 30s have always stuck with that first book, even before the play was launched, and I’ve always wondered why. It wasn’t until I was researching my own children’s novel-in-progress that I finally came across the coincidence of history that links The Boxcar Children with the Great Depression.

I was reading a lot about children on trains—my middle-grade novel, Wanderville (forthcoming from Razorbill in January), begins in 1904 with three children boarding the “orphan trains” that sent thousands of children from urban orphanages on the East Coast to foster homes in the Midwest and beyond. My young protagonists escape from the orphan train, but I’ve been thinking ahead to their continuing adventures in which they  just may return to the rails in future books. In my research I soon discovered that in the history of homeless children, there’s one era that’s especially well documented. Maybe you can guess which one…

During the Great Depression, more than a quarter of a million teenagers were living on the road. They’d left home to relieve the financial burden on their families, to look for better work opportunities elsewhere, or because their schools had closed. Some hitchhiked, and a great many more rode the rails, stowing away in freight cars. Their way of life and their desperation received national attention in the press and in books and movies, including a 1933 movie called Wild Boys of the Road and Thomas Minehan’s 1934 book Boy and Girl Tramps.

And there was a certain term used to refer to these teenagers that seemed to have especially caught on during that decade. That term was “boxcar kids.”  

Boxcar kids! I can’t help but think this explains why so many people think Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden began their series adventures as young hoboes from the Hard Times. Quite by coincidence, Gertrude Chandler Warner’s 1920s story evoked 1930s memories when it was revised in the 40s. It’s no wonder, since the Boxcar Kids of history and the Boxcar Children of fiction have so many experiences in common—from homelessness to hunger pangs to the shelter of a freight car.

And of course, a little historical misappropriation doesn’t really change The Boxcar Children at all. It’s still a story of resilient kids who are able to find a sense of family, home, and fun in just about any circumstance. No matter what the history is—or isn’t— there’s still a great deal of truth.

 Wendy McClure holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is the author of The Wilder LifeI'm Not the New Me, and the creator of the online journal Pound, as well as the humor site Candyboots. She is a columnist for Bust, a regular contributor to the website Television Without Pity, and her writing has also appeared in Glamour, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Chicago.  

Patricia MacLachlan visited Bank Street Bookstore during her Boxcar Children tour. 

Becky Anderson chats with Patrcia MacLachlan about The Boxcar Children. 

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1 comment:

  1. My daughter came home two weeks ago so excited about this "super cool" book the school librarian helped her pick out. It was a Boxcar Children book. So thankful for great librarians that out the right book in a kids hands.