Ah, the Boxcar Children. What I remember about these books boils down to:
a) The kids suffered from an absolute lack of sibling rivalry
b) I envied their boxcar home, and
c) They were gutsy to eat off plates scavenged from a landfill. Either they had stomachs of steel, or that landfill was sparkling clean.
Now that I’ve read Patricia MacLachlan’s The Boxcar Children Beginning, a prequel to the original series, I’m pretty sure the landfill answer lies in the Alden kids’ farm upbringing, which must’ve done wonders for their immune systems. And because it’s Patricia MacLachlan, the descriptions of farm life and scenery was the best part of the book. That, and the pencil illustrations by Robert Dunn. (Note: spoilers below).
The children are as well-behaved as they are in Gertrude Chandler Warner’s original series. Henry and Jessie are the older, responsible siblings. Violet is the sweet one and Benny, age 5, has a thing for (very tame) adventure. The kids live with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alden, on a charming farm (how charming? Their cow Betty acts more like a patient, loyal horse than a bovine). Mr. Alden keeps talking about “hard times,” and you get the sense this takes place during the Depression. But you’d never know it because Mr. Alden has a job and Mrs. Alden helps out by selling homemade baked goods at the market.
There’s nothing wrong with a book about a happy, loving family. Except their happiness is so constant that it starts to get boring. All their conflict comes from the outside world: the Depression, the car accident that kills the parents, the snowstorm that strands a family of strangers, the Clarks, on the Alden farm. The Clarks, as it turns out, have two charming kids (William and Meg) and a dog named Joe (no MacLachlan book is complete without a dog!). They move in with the Aldens until their car gets fixed, and everyone pitches in to keep the farm running:
The days marched one after the other into a warm and wet spring.
Every day the children walked to school and home again.
Every day Benny stayed home with Joe.
Every day there were chores. Henry and William carried water and cleaned out the cow stalls. Meg and Jessie laid down new hay and filled the grain bins. They had a contest to see how long it would be before Betty mooed.
“Chores are fun,” said Meg.
“They’re more fun with you two here,” said Henry.
See? They’re so angelic it’s disturbing. (But doesn’t it sound relaxing to live their life for just one day?) I was hoping for one act of meanness, or the smallest hint of laziness/jealousy/selfishness. No such luck. Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny were always responsible: MacLachlan couldn’t change that and call this a prequel. In Warner’s books, the kids had to grow up quickly because they’re orphans on the run. In MacLachlan’s book, we get to see them with their parents, so they could afford to be a bit more childish. It’s too bad they have the exact same personalities as the kids in Warner’s novels.
Still. As a kid, I wouldn’t have cared about the lack of internal conflict. I would’ve wanted to visit the farm and join the Aldens’ circus show. MacLachlan’s writing style fits seamlessly with the original series, so I think her book will introduce a lot of kids to Warner’s novels. And that can only be a good thing.