From an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb of London, three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis, embark on an extraordinary journey. The three children have always lived with their two parents, who provided them with a happy and secure home life. Then, practically before the echoes of the doorbell stop sounding, the children’s life changes when their father leaves abruptly with two men.
E. Nesbit’s “The Railway Children” is a children’s classic that influenced generations of writers. Other 19th-century children’s writers such as George Macdonald and Lewis Carroll were well-known for fantasy, and Nesbit wrote a good deal of it herself. But “The Railway Children” tells a children’s story based on everyday life, a trend that Nesbit has been credited with starting.
The children in the story are used to their father’s occasional absences because he sometimes travels for work. But now, their mother isn’t her usual cheerful self. Instead, she’s pale and shaken, and she won’t tell them what’s going on—only that they’re to be good and happy and not quarrel, and that they’ll have to “play at being Poor for a bit.” This means moving to a new home in the country, where their mother has to write stories to earn a living.
After living with this tension and experiencing so many changes, the children might easily have become sullen and withdrawn. However, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis are made of sterner stuff. The three disarmingly kind children make friends in the neighborhood, and find courage and ingenuity they didn’t know they had — especially Roberta, when she finds out the truth about what took their father away. (But occasionally, being brother and sisters, they quarrel.)
The first day in their new home, the children discovered they could look down on the train tracks that ran near their house. The first train that emerged from the tunnel looked like a dragon to them. Through Nesbit’s deft writing, the trains become characters in their own right. Yet as important as the trains are to the story, it’s the human characters, like the station porter, that push the story along.
Nesbit wrote convincingly about the confusion experienced by the Railway Children. In some small way, this reflects the writer’s own tumultuous childhood experience. When she was only four, her father died, leaving Nesbit living a sort of vagabond existence. She was blessed with a keen intelligence and an ability to write, even though her education was a hit or miss affair.
The confusion of her earlier life carried over into her adult life, which was unconventional and stormy. Yet her characters reflect a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world in their attitudes and values, and they talk openly about their faith. For example, during an arduous walk through the dark and dangerous train tunnel, Peter calms his sister Phyllis, who’d gotten hurt falling, saying that everything has an end, and that their troubles would soon be behind them. His comments are out of the Book of Proverbs.
Since the book was written at the turn of the century, some of the subject matter might be foreign to 21st-century children. Yet despite not being filled technical wizardry or paranormal subjects, “The Railway Children” is a classic that will provide tweens with hours of enjoyment. Nesbit’s writing is delightful to read (her stories influenced C. S. Lewis, among others), and her story will enlarge the imagination of the reader.
Image copyright Oxford Children’s Classics. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Kim Moreland is the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.