The Boxcar Children is a curious combination of practical and fanciful. On one level, the Alden children are remarkably levelheaded. Henry and Jessie work hard to take care of their siblings. They try to make responsible decisions (like buying bread instead of cake), and they cobble together a respectable house in the woods using only their wits and trash from the local dump.
On another level, though, the story isn't realistic at all: The children's lives as runaways are totally romanticized. Reading about their boxcar home, where "the days went by happily" as "they found more treasures in the dump" (11.1), you almost want to quit your life and go live in the woods. But, in real life, how well do you think that would go? Yeah … probably not so great.
Another interesting thing about the book is how its cheerful tone almost erases the story's dark undertones. The Alden children are relentlessly cheerful. Henry cleans out Dr. Moore's garage with the enthusiasm other kids might reserve for things that are actually fun, while Jessie's idea of a good time is simply using utensils—"What fun! […] Eating with spoons" (6.5) is something she actually says. The children's positive attitudes are almost enough to make you forget that they are four orphans on the run from a hostile universe filled with the threat of orphanages and an evil grandfather. Almost.
The Boxcar Children was penned by a first-grade teacher who was specifically writing for kids, which places it firmly in the children's lit category. One way that she appealed to young people was by making the story easy to read; another way was by making the plot exciting. The Alden children's adventures on the road and in the woods are romanticized quite a bit. If the author had written a realistic depiction of four orphans living in a boxcar, the book would be a lot more depressing (and, therefore, more of a family drama or a tragedy).
The book is the first volume in an epic series of The Boxcar Children mysteries. While there's not really a big, overarching mystery that gets solved in this first story, it does have a lot of mysterious elements. First of all, many mysteries lurk in the background of the story. How did the Boxcar Children's parents die, anyway? And why do the kids assume their grandfather is mean? Many of the characters keep secrets, too, like when Mr. Alden doesn't tell his grandchildren his true identity.
Many smaller mysteries drive the plot. Some are pretty suspenseful—for example, who is the person that Jessie and Henry hear in the woods late at night?—while others are a little less exciting, like the origin of Watch the dog. Many of these questions get resolved at the end of the story; we find out that the "intruder" was actually Dr. Moore, and that Watch was lost when his owner sold him. Glad we cleared that up.
The Boxcar Children is the first volume in a long series of mysteries, but the book's title isn't one of them. It's very literal: The story is about four children who make their home in a boxcar. Thus, they are referred to throughout the text as the Boxcar Children. Though it does sort of sound like the name of an indie band, right?
Mr. Alden, aka Grandfather, arranges a big surprise for the Alden kids in the final chapter: He's moved their beloved boxcar into one of his gardens. Everything's the same as it was in the woods, except now the boxcar is next to a fancy fountain instead of a brook. Also, the kids can just play there instead of, you know, living in it. The children are super excited to see their old squat, and Mr. Alden is excited that they're excited, so basically, everyone wins.
Oh, and of course, they all live happily after. The book even goes so far as to come right out and say as much:
"Thank you for the surprise, Grandfather," said Violet. "We'll never go away from you again."
"I hope not, my dear," said Mr. Alden. "We'll all live happily ever after."
And so they did. (13.66-13.68)
It's worth noting, however, that the end of this book is not the end of the Boxcar Children's adventures. In fact, there are more than 100 mysteries in the series, though the original author only wrote the first 19.
It's not quite a van down by the river, but it's close. The book is named for the abandoned boxcar in which the kids make their home, so it makes sense that it's the most important part of the setting.
In the beginning, when the kids find the boxcar, it's in a deserted forest. "It is far away from people," Jessie observes. "You can tell that by the grass in the road" (2.38). While it begins as a makeshift home for the orphans, over the course of the book, the boxcar goes on a journey much like the children themselves. When the Alden kids rejoin society by going to live with their grandfather, the boxcar is hauled into one of his many gardens. In its new home, it will serve as a playhouse instead of a literal home, a symbol of both the hardship from which they came and the comfort in which they now live.
In terms of geography, the book names two specific towns, Silver City (where Dr. Moore lives) and Greenfield (where Mr. Alden lives), neither of which exist in real life. Many readers have assumed the story is set somewhere in New England, but there are no sure signs that's true, unless you count the fact that the author lived in Connecticut. All we really know is that there are farms, mills, and forests—and many regions in the U.S. fit that description.
What we can say with confidence is that the story is set around the time the book was written, in 1924. The main clue is that Dr. Moore drives a car, while the baker and his wife use a horse and buggy. The children even encounter a special water fountain with three levels to accommodate people, horses, and dogs. The 1920s were a time in American history when both types of vehicles were on the road. Other clues that the book was written at this time include its quaint language (e.g., socks are referred to as "stockings") and the outdated gender roles played by Henry, the big, strong boy who does all the work, and Jessie, the sweet girl who cooks and cleans.
It doesn't get much easier than this, folks. The author of The Boxcar Children was a first-grade teacher, and she specifically designed the book so it would be easy to read. Simple sentences, words that repeat again and again (and again), and a straightforward plot will help new readers follow along. And for not-so-new readers, the story itself is a great hook. Who among us hasn't fantasized about running away?
The author of The Boxcar Children was a first-grade teacher, and one of her goals in writing the book was to make it both entertaining and easy to read. Her writing style has a lot in common with books for very small children—short words and a lot of repetition.
An example in the book itself illustrates this technique. In the book, Jessie teaches her 5-year-old brother Benny how to read. The first sentences he learns are: "See me. See me run. I can run. Can you run?" (10.83). Benny's reading lesson sounds a lot like this bit of dialogue from Dr. Moore:
"Look, Mother!" he said. "Look at those tools. Look at the shelf. Look at my hammers. One, two, three, four hammers. Your hammer, my hammer, and two other hammers." (7.55)
See the similarities? Yeah, we thought so. Sometimes, all of this repetition feels like the author is really belaboring a point, but sometimes, she uses word play to make the repetition more fun. Consider this paragraph, which uses the word "watch" in two ways:
Benny climbed into the man's lap. "Have you got a dog?" he asked.
"No," said the man. "He is dead now. But you can see him in my watch. Here it is."
Benny looked at the dog. "He looks like a very good dog," he said. "I have a dog, too. His name is Watch." (11.56-11.58)
One thing that's interesting about the story is that it spends a lot of time on details—we know exactly what the Alden children are having for dinner at any given time—but quickly brushes over huge plot points with no explanation. How did the Boxcar Children's parents die? Unclear. Why have they never met their grandfather until now? No one knows. Why does Dr. Moore decide to keep the children's existence a secret from Mr. Alden? No idea. The author leaves these mysteries to our imaginations.
On one level, The Boxcar Children is about the fantasy of running away, which is something children are never supposed to do—but in every other way, the book is about what children are supposed to do. In that sense, the novel is an allegory, i.e., a story that has a moral message under its surface.
With The Boxcar Children, the message is about how to lead a good life. Think of that message as medicine, except instead of being gussied up with sugar and food coloring to make it go down more easily, it's dressed up like a fun little adventure story. The fantasy of running away makes the message fun to read—if the author had just made a list of rules about how to live, that wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining. We're pretty sure kids wouldn't still be reading that list all these years later, though The Boxcar Children remains a classic.
One thing you may have noticed about Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny is that they don't have a ton of personality. (There's more on this over in the "Characters" section, so check it out.) They have differences, sure—Jessie is the caring one, and Benny is always hungry—but as individuals, we don't really know what makes each person tick. That's because the Alden children are designed to be role models more than they're meant to be nuanced characters. They embody important values like self-reliance, being hard-working, and living a moral life, while their actions are meant to serve as little lessons to the reader about things like hygiene and generosity.
Minus the running-away part, the Boxcar Children are pretty perfect. Heck, they only run away because they're orphaned and don't want to live with their "nasty" grandpa—so it's not like they even run off for particularly immoral reasons. Through and through, these kids are good eggs … just like Warner wants her readers to be.
Little Benny's most prized possession is a pink teacup he finds in the dump. Overlooking a giant crack, he waves it in the air and declares that it will be his special cup. Back at the boxcar, as the children wash their almost-new dishes, "never did a little boy hand dishes so carefully to his sisters as Benny did" (5.41).
The Aldens scavenge many things to help make their home in the woods, but Benny's attachment to the pink cup symbolizes how you can find not just utility, but also beauty, in broken things. The cup's crack is so large that Jessie seems skeptical it will even hold liquid—but brand-new pink cups at Benny's grandfather's house "were not so dear to Benny as his old cracked one" (13.51). Sometimes, one man's trash is another little boy's treasure. It all depends on the perspective a person brings to the situation.
As time goes on, the Alden kids settle into a routine: "The days went by happily for the boxcar children," the narrator tells us. "They found more treasures in the dump, and Henry worked every day for Dr. Moore" (11.1). Everything seems to be going so well that we readers begin to wonder if they could just live in the woods forever.
But, of course, they can't. Jessie and Henry are shocked into action when Violet becomes really ill. One moment, Jessie and Violet are laughing at Benny's antics; the next moment, everything starts to spiral out of control: "Violet laughed until she did cry. Then she could not stop crying. At last Jessie made up her mind that Violet was really sick" (11.24-11.25). Uh-oh. When Violet can't stop shivering, the kids are forced to seek help from Dr. Moore.
Violet's illness gets the children out of the boxcar and under a real roof once more, and it ultimately reunites the children with their grandfather. Her sickness reveals that beneath the romantic idea of living in the woods, children can't survive on their own in the wild—however resourceful and independent the Alden kids may be, they still require adult care. In a sense, in the woods, Jessie and Henry were just playing house; it's a fantasy that can't be sustained. Children need guardians, doctors, teachers and other adults in their lives in order to thrive.
So, don't get any ideas kids, OK?
The book's third-person narrator is an unknown speaker whose old-fashioned phrasing and simple language lend the narration a sort of singsong, storybook quality. From a remove, the narrator tells us about what the Boxcar Children are doing. Spoiler alert: It's almost always some sort of work—and they're almost always pretty stoked to be doing it.
But, our narrator also has some insight into what the children think and feel, peeping into the characters' minds so we understand them better. For example, when Jessie tells Henry that Benny went to sleep with his hand touching his new cart, Henry laughs. Jessie probably thinks that he's laughing at Benny, but we know what he's really laughing about because the narrator tells us: "Henry laughed, too, but he laughed at himself, because he was going to sleep with his new hammer under his pillow" (7.90). He might be playing dad, but Henry's still just a kid who gets excited about new stuff.
It's also worth noting that the narrator can predict the future, giving him or her an almost godlike quality. When Jessie frets about their food supplies at the end of chapter 8, the narrator knows exactly what will happen next, even though Jessie does not:
"Tomorrow we'll have to eat bread and milk," said Jessie.
But when tomorrow came, the children had more than bread and milk, as you will soon see. (8.55-8.56)
Similarly, at the end of chapter 12, when the children's grandfather invites them to visit his house, the narrator knows something the children do not: "They did not know what a beautiful house it was and what good times they were going to have in it" (12.100). By teasing the events to come in the next chapter, the narrator holds our interest as we read while also making sure things never get too tense.
Four children, the Alden siblings, are on the run from a "mean" old grandfather they've never met. Their parents are dead, and their worldly possessions amount to approximately $4 and a couple of clean towels. Seeking food and shelter, they buy some bread and ask the baker's wife if they can crash on her couch for one night. She reluctantly agrees.
That night, Henry and Jessie overhear a conversation between the baker and his wife, who are planning to ship Benny off to the orphanage the next day. This obviously won't do, so the children flee the bakery under cover of night. After a few days on the road, they find an old boxcar in the middle of the woods and decide they'll make it their home.
Things are going great in the children's boxcar squat. Henry has found a job in town, and Jessie has set up an entire household with garbage treasures from the dump. There's just one small snafu, though: One night, out of nowhere, Violet falls ill. She's so sick that Henry consults with Dr. Moore, the man he's been working for. Thankfully, the doctor takes all four kids back to his place so Violet can recover. Phew—that was close.
For no discernible reason, Mr. Alden shows up at Dr. Moore's place looking for info on his missing grandchildren. Dr. Moore explains that they've been staying with him while Violet convalesces, and he introduces Mr. Alden to the Boxcar Children without revealing Mr. A.'s true identity. Eventually—we're talking days, if not weeks—Henry catches on. The kids are relieved to find out that their grandfather isn't the mean ogre they presumed him to be. Hurrah.
The Boxcar Children love living with their grandfather in his fancy mansion. Despite this, for some reason, they really miss squatting in the boxcar with all of their garbage treasures. Mr. Alden tells the ingrates that they can go back to the forest and live in their boxcar if they love it so much. Just kidding. He super nicely moves the boxcar into his garden so it's there for the kids to visit whenever they're feeling nostalgic.