The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: A

From the back cover:
When Father goes away unexpectedly, Roberta, Peter, Phyllis and their mother have to leave their happy life in London to go and live in a small cottage in the country. The children seek solace in the nearby railway station, and make friends with Perks the Porter and the Station Master himself. But the mystery remains: where is Father, and will he ever return?

This is the story of three children—Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis—who move with their mother from the city to the country after their beloved father mysteriously goes away. Though it’s initially a culture shock, they’re soon fascinated by the railway and make many friends among its staff and patrons and end up helping quite a few people—and receiving help in return—along the way.

Perhaps the best compliment I could give The Railway Children is that I wish it had gone on for about three times as long. But, as Peter sagely opines, everything must end.

‘There’s no end to this tunnel,’ said Phyllis—and indeed it did seem very, very long.

‘Stick to it,’ said Peter; ‘everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep on.’

Which is quite true, if you come to think of it, and a useful thing to remember in seasons of trouble—such as measles, arithmetic, impositions, and those times when you are in disgrace, and feel as though no one would ever love you again, and you could never—never again—love anybody.

The passage above exemplifies several of the qualities that make this book such a charming read. The narration, for example, has a comradely air, evincing sympathy for the child’s point of view while utilizing humor that would please any audience. Here’s another bit at which I giggled—it takes place right after the children have gone out to pick cherries and end up preventing a terrible accident:

Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it.

‘And it was us that saved them’ said Peter.

‘How dreadul if they had all been killed!’ said Phyllis; ‘wouldn’t it, Bobbie?’

‘We never got any cherries, after all,’ said Bobbie.

The others thought her rather heartless.

I could go on quoting similar diverting passages, but must address a second strong point in favor of this book: the characterization of the children. Now, it may be said that it’s idealistic to expect children this clever and honest to truly exist, but Nesbit is also careful to give each of them flaws. Peter is a bit hot-headed, Phyllis is self-absorbed, and Bobbie is… well, Bobbie hasn’t really got faults, and yet I love her best of the lot.

Bobbie’s the eldest, and poised on the brink of growing up. She still has fun playing with her siblings, but she’s the one attuned to her mother’s sorrow, and realizes that asking about their father’s whereabouts would only cause more pain. When she discovers the truth, and thinks how it would affect her younger siblings, she understands why her mother did not reveal it. She’s brave, kind, sensitive, and thoughtful. The family owes their happiness to her, though they know it not.

The end result is a story that is wholesome, but never saccharine. The children invariably do the right thing, but that doesn’t make them immune from quarrels. Unfair and frightening things happen, but likewise people are willing to offer help when asked. Cleverness and simple goodness are prized more than foolhardy exploits, and the children are extremely proud of their mother, who uses her gift of storytelling to support the family after the move. It’s a story that makes one feel good about people, and oh, that ending! “I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.”

Clearly I must read more E. Nesbit.

Additional reviews of The Railway Children can be found at Triple Take.

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  1. […] After reading and really enjoying The Railway Children, I decided that I definitely needed to read more by E. Nesbit. Five Children and It was my first […]

  2. […] on the spot. The emphasis on helping people makes this installment of the series a little more like The Railway Children, which still remains my favorite Nesbit […]

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