Tuesday, January 1, 2008

And the surprise is . . .

Here's the book I just couldn't like as an adult: one of the books in The Boxcar Children series, Surprise Island. I was not a huge fan of The Boxcar Children as a child because I wasn't particularly fond of mysteries, but I did love the first two books. I liked to imitate the characters I read about, which sometimes had amusing results. I remember pretending a jump rope was a "lariat," a term I was introduced to in The Great Brain books. In Surprise Island, the four Alden children delight in simple meals, like blueberries and giant bowls of peas with a little pat of butter. I hated peas, but I remember trying to make my way through a bowl of them, resenting jolly little Benny the whole time.

That's the problem with The Boxcar Children. They're filled with an admirable "do-it-yerself" spirit, but they're just so damn wholesome that the books are hokey at best, and completely unrealistic at their worst. Surprise Island finds the four Alden siblings (Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny) spending a summer on their own private island. They swim, go exploring, find Indian artifacts, and make their own museum. Here's a typical bit of dialogue:

The next morning it was still raining. The children dressed and ate breakfast and then watched the rain.

"One of us must go outside for the groceries," said Henry, "and I think I'm the one. My clothes are going to get awfully wet, so what shall I do while they dry?"

"Henry can go to bed while his clothes dry," said Benny.

"Say, listen, Benny!" cried Henry. "How would you like to go to bed? You get busy and think of something I could put on."

"Jessie could make you a suit out of a blanket," said Benny suddenly.

"I really could!" cried Jessie. "It's lucky we brought along Violet's workbag. I'll make you a pair of pants out of a blanket. And you can put on your new sweater while your things dry."

"Good for you, Jessie," said Henry. "Now let's be sure we have thought of everything we want so I won't have to go out again."

"I have an idea," said Benny. Why don't you put on your swimming suit to go outside and then your clothes won't get wet?"

"That is a good idea, Benny. What would we do without you?" said Henry.

"Benny, you are wonderful," agreed Jessie.

Benny laughed and said, "I know you could make pants out of a blanket if you had to." (71-73)

This is the sort of thing the four former boxcar kids are always doing: getting along amiably, even though they're shut up inside on their summer vacation, and even though all siblings argue with one another. Not only do they get along, they come up with stuff like making pants out of a blanket instead of the many other obvious solutions to the situation, like using an umbrella. I love how Henry suggests that Benny should be the one to go to bed. No six-year-old boy would take that suggestion in passing. Notice in this scene that Henry goes out to bring in the heavy groceries and Jessie wants to sew Henry a pair of pants. These books are really a product of their time. Henry and Benny go out and catch crabs and such, while Violet and Jessie stay inside, baking and tending to other domestic duties, like laundry. Kids may overlook the stereotypes, but it was pretty hard for me to do so, especially with lines like this, yet another instance of Jessie always seeking Henry's approval:

"Oh, Henry," cried Jessie, "I don't know what to do first, but I suppose I must fix the clams."

"You surely must," said Henry. "We are so hungry we could eat the chairs." (60)

In the first book, the Aldens had to survive in their boxcar in the woods, becoming independent and yet relying on one another to find creative solutions. In Surprise Island, this sense of necessity to survive is absent, and it's hard to ignore the sheer implausibility of much of what goes on. I found myself laughing at times, mostly due to the sheer hokeyness, particularly in the "making a suit out of a blanket" scene. The Boxcar Children are moralistic and inoffensive and they're good books for early readers, but I think that's really about all they are.

Coming soon: the promised 4B Goes Wild, a quick look at Fran Ellen's House (the sequel to The Bears' House), and Gordon Korman's hilarious portrayal of summer camp, I Want to Go Home.


Josh said...

rI remember seeing many of the boxcar books in our elementary school library, and I think checked one or two of them out.

Good to see another post :).

Anne said...

I remember reading The Boxcar Children series when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and I remember that they were in the "older kids" section, which made me feel special because I was an "advanced" reader. I took a lot of pleasure in reading in those days. Sure wish I could rediscover some of that...

Anne said...

More books, more books! You're working on a new post, yes?