Tracey, librarian on strike's Reviews > The Railway Children

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
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Again E. Nesbit shows herself expert at showing-not-telling, and at writing for anyone and everyone. With the story told from the point of view of the children, and aimed at children, all anyone under a certain height level is going to understand is that the father of the family goes away one night and does not come back, and the mother tells the three that he is away on business – and everything changes. Mother is upset or sad all the time, even when courageously pretending otherwise. The children are made to understand that they are now poor – for a while. And almost overnight they pick up and leave their home – taking all the furniture the children deem "ugly" and Mother deems "useful", but few of their pretty things – and move out to a cottage in the country and Mother begins writing most of the day and far into the night. And Father does not come back.

I can't think how this story could be told more poignantly than as it is, obliquely through the children's eyes. Peter and Roberta (Bobbie) and Phyllis are, of course, bright children, and good ones, well brought up and attentive and conscientious – but they are wrapped in the happy oblivion of what seems to have been an upper middle class upbringing, wanting for no essential and few non-essentials, a world in which it is utterly and in all other ways inconceivable that anyone could ever dream their father did anything wrong. As it happens, of course, they are correct, but even had their father been in truth Jack the Ripper they would have been difficult to convince. They are essentially self-involved, viewing the world only as it affects them; for Peter and Phyllis it is enough that their mother tells them their father is away on business and they mustn't worry. They are upset when she is upset, but otherwise they are content and involved in their own lives. Bobbie is more attentive, more outwardly focused, and seems to step away from her childhood with this book.

Mother is, in this story, utterly brilliant – and I don't think that's just because the point of view is thoroughly sympathetic. She does a tremendous job of protecting her children – whisking them away from their old environment before they can hear a whisper of what has really happened to their father.

And of course the children are brilliant too. Roberta especially is rather magnificent. I love the narrator's frank statement that she hopes the reader does not mind her paying particular attention to Bobbie, but she has become rather a favorite. And I also love the equally frank assessment of her tendency to a) interfere or b) help lame dogs over stiles or c) help others, depending on who you ask – she can't help herself from making every effort to do something, and feels things very deeply, and this does not always make for easy relations with others.

The realism of E. Nesbit's writing is a bit dinged by the heroic role of the children during the summer of the story. Not to spoil things, but the events the three of them become involved in might, individually, be acceptable; all together it's a little bit ridiculous. But for the original target audience it would be so much fun. For me, a good bit older than the target? Also fun – and I admit to choking up at the climax. Oh, and Karen Savage, the narrator of the Librivox recording? Absolutely terrific.
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