After a very important conversation about childhood reading in our office, Rhymenocerous and I decided that we would re-read the Boxcar Children to see what we liked about it so much. I remembered bits and pieces – several trips to the dump to find dishes, Henry winning the race, the waterfall refrigerator – but I couldn’t remember much about the actual plot. Naturally, this couldn’t stand, so I got a copy from the library, and we both read it in the airport last weekend. Here are a few tidbits I had forgotten:
1) They’re obsessed with cold water
2) Benny cries ALL THE TIME
3) Henry is by far the smartest of all of them, and sometimes even his intelligence is questionable.
4) The major turning point in the plot is that Violet laughs so much that she cries, and then she can’t stop crying, and then she is really, really sick. WTF?
R: I really think you’re missing the deeper meaning behind the Boxcar Children. It’s almost a Sophie’s World construct, where we’re never sure if the characters exist in the world in which they’re placed, or if they even exist at all. Or if we even exist at all! The opening paragraph really sets the tone: “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” With uncertainty like that, you can understand why the Boxcar Children are inherently existentialists, focused on the small pleasures they can can glean from ‘cold water.’ Why learn more adjectives, when the word ‘fine’ can be applied to just about any description? Why bother to question the limitations of a misogynistic society, when you’re probably just going to die in the woods anyway?
PC: Existentialists, eh? I suppose we could compare them to Thoreau on Walden Pond. They do live in the wilderness just outside of town, and they make their own pond by damming up the brook. And boy do they ever enjoy their small pleasures. I’ve never seen anyone want to hem anything as much as Violet wants to hem the tablecloth that Henry decides is a smart purchase one day. Maybe he bought it because he knew how much Violet would enjoy hemming it. I hope so. He tells Jessie that he felt that they should have a tablecloth when he brings it home, but seeing as they don’t actually have a table, Violet’s apparent love of sewing is the only explanation I can think of that doesn’t make me seriously question Henry’s reasoning for spending part of the $2 he’s worked all day to earn on something that is essentially useless. A picnic blanket seems more appropriate. Or, you know, an actual blanketto cover up their beds made of pine needles. However, since Henry earned one of those dollars enthusiastically organizing a messy garage, maybe he understands how his little sister feels about hemming.
R: Poor Violet. She and Jessie are really stuck in some stringent gender roles here. I think later books in the series aren’t so heavy-handed on traditional female tropes. It’s almost medieval. Jessie tells the boys at one point that they “can have the first swim–we girls must go get dinner” (pg 88), and then Jessie has to rise earlier than everyone else because she’s the housekeeper. Not exactly what I would run away to the woods for. But Jessie really seems to enjoy the drudgery of keeping house. She sure is proud of her potato-cooking and ladle-making skills. It’s Violet who I feel for, with Jessie constantly bossing her around. She even makes her stop hemming and help her with some mindless, soul-crushing task. And we know that needlework is pretty much the only joy in Violet’s life. That, and hoping that maybe Benny will set himself on fire accidentally so she can throw sand on him.
PC: I’m pretty sure that she filled up that cracked pitcher AND the kettle with water in case Benny set himself alight. Or Watch. The sand was for the fun of scrubbing the rust off of the dump spoons (aka TREASURE), which I’m pretty sure Violet had to take care of while Jessie lamented the fact that they still weren’t clean because she was scrubbing rust off of them in cold water. Jessie would have been covered in ashes and tearing her clothes if she lived in Biblical times, such was her distress. As this is set in New England in the 20’s, she settles for moaning about it until Henry can come home from doing yard work to earn money to buy food and tablecloths and Benny’s milk (he cries if he doesn’t have any milk. Shocker). It seems that Henry is the only one qualified to build a fire and boil water, although he does leave Jessie in charge of the stew after giving her very specific instructions about how to add the tiny reject vegetables that he thinned from Mrs. Moore’s garden that morning. It seemed brave of him until he was all in awe of her tin can ladle, and then I began to question his judgment again. “Oh, Jessie! How did you make that ladle?? It is simply marvelous!” “Why, I just used a bit of old wire to tie this stick to a rusty tin can from the dump. It’s totally hygienic, even though I didn’t get you to pour boiling water over it since you’ve clearly never seen it before.” I like to think that Henry did a little facepalm there (seriously, why does he need to ask her how she made the ladle?? Shouldn’t the construction of a flimsy tin-can-and-stick contraption be obvious to someone who builds Benny a cart with no directions?), but he eats his stew served from a rusty dump ladle that probably leaves bits of the bark from the handle floating around in it, so perhaps he really is that oblivious. I think that the baker and his wife would have been sorely disappointed in the kids’ abilities in the kitchen if they had caught them.
R: Since you brought up the baker and his wife, lets talk for a moment how despite the fact that the baker’s wife went out of her way to talk at length about how much she hates children, the couple still goes through the trouble of looking for the kids for days. Luckily they found a haystack to hide in or we would be reading a much more depressing tale. I’m most bothered by how the Grandfather issue is never resolved. The kids are so terrified of him that they run away and live in the woods–so obviously their parents were talking some mad smack about him at bedtime. I imagine that Grandfather was used as sort of a catch-all bogeyman character whenever Benny started crying about milk. The conundrum here is either the children’s parents were awful people, maligning the good Grandfather, or Grandfather did some serious bad shit that he never owns up to. I mean, what good reason would these dead parents have for besmirching the character of this old man? My hypothesis is that the dad married the town drunk’s daughter, instead of the debutante he was promised to–so Grandfather cut them off. Kind of a Little Lord Fauntleroy twist. What do you think?
PC: I think it’s more likely that their father was the town drunk, so Grandfather cut him off so that he wouldn’t squander the family fortune on booze. He probably drank himself to death or died in a barfight or something else equally unsavory since no one ever mentions how the parents died. I’m going to go with the mom dying of a broken heart. Or she’s worked herself to death trying to take care of her drunken husband and four kids. Something has clearly happened to cause a falling out in the family since it doesn’t appear that Grandfather attended the funeral. Otherwise, he could have picked the kids up there and taken them home to his mansion to show them that he’s a real life Daddy Warbucks who knows a LOT about them and their tastes, despite the fact that he hasn’t been around. Stalker much??
R: But if the Boxcar Children’s parents were degenerates there is NO WAY the kids would have turned out so wholesome. UNLESS–what if the kids parents didn’t die, and they just ran away? Or Henry faked their deaths and then they ran away? The degenerate parent theory does account for their many OCD tendencies. Coping mechanisms, am I right?
PC: I didn’t say that both parents were degenerates. Just the dad. And I don’t know about coping mechanisms. I didn’t even bother to take high school psychology, much less college level courses. I do adore the idea of Henry faking their deaths so that they could run away. I think it’s a brave thing to do, especially in light of how often poor Henry has to carry Benny around and the constant crying for milk. He knew he could keep Violet occupied with a little sewing, of course. I’d say that Jessie was in on it, but Henry would have to have done all the planning. I can’t really remember her having a lot of original ideas. Of course, it’s possible that I missed one while I was thinking about the strict gender roles that Gertrude has boxed them into. (seewhatididthere)
R: Henry would have NEVER trusted Jessie enough to let her in on his parent-fake-death-scenario. Plus, Henry never does things half-way, so he probably would feel obligated to actually kill them, so he wouldn’t have to tell a lie.
I like how we’ve completely deviated from any sort of book description into some imaginary chainsaw massacre level children’s book. Gertrude would be HORRIFIED.
I’m going to jump the tracks here, because we can’t finish this without me mentioning that Henry runs a race and wins it, simply on a whim. That’s like me showing up for the Peachtree Road Race, and just hopping in there. I also love that someone provided him with running clothes. What kind of race is this? How freakin’ convenient?! I have a sneaking suspicion that Grandfather already knew that it was Henry, and just paid off the runners, and got the clothes from some hapless other kid for $5. And Henry is all “yay, I won! What a shiny trophy!” And Grandfather is totally, facepalm, “well, you can’t choose your relatives…he’s not half bad compared to Benny.”
PC: I can’t jump the tracks with you just yet because I need to respond to your decision that Henry actually killed their parents. I was thinking that they’d fake their own deaths, not their parents’, so I need to cogitate on this for a bit. I love that you think that, when faced with faking their deaths vs actually killing the parentals, Henry would conclude that the lesser of the two evils is murder. What’s a little parricide? At least he didn’t lie! Do you think that he’d fess up if someone asks him whether or not he killed them? If he doesn’t he’ll be a murderer and a liar, and that might drive him over the edge. Maybe the kids are brain-addled from years of eating off of rusty junk scavenged from the dump (they had to learn that *somewhere.* Jessie would not have thought of it on her own) and it has severely warped their sense of right and wrong. Or dear old drunken dad thought it would be fun to teach them questionable ethics and then he paid for it when Henry decided that the only logical thing to do was murder them and run away in the night from crazy old Grandfather. Yes, Gertrude might be horrified at this grisly turn of events, but maybe she has a dark side. We don’t know her life. If not, she is definitely rolling over in her grave right now.
Anyway, back to the race. Yes, it’s totally reasonable for Dr. Moore to have called Grandfather up and said, “Listen, I found the kids. Henry thought he was being clever by saying his name was Henry James, but since your name is James Henry, I put two and two together. They’re not the brightest, so you can rig this thing and he’ll never know the difference. Plus, there’s the opportunity for some fun wordplay about Henry James shaking hands with James Henry. Use it a bunch. He won’t notice.”
R: Oh, he would dissolve in a minute under any sort of interrogation. Are you kidding? If Henry was Jean Valjean he would starve before he considered stealing bread. There is no way that he would lie about murdering his parents…but the trick is, no one would ever think to ask him. The boy gets giddy about organizing tools for Pete’s sake. It’s always the quiet ones…or the ones slowly going insane from lead poisoning, if I take your hypothesis to heart.
The conversation between Dr. Moore and Grandfather literally had me LOLing. I think we should write our own book: The Boxcar Adults: How to Have Fun With Ridiculously Naive Kids.
This opens an interesting theory for me: what if all the ‘mysteries’ the Boxcar Children ‘solve’ in the future books are really just elaborate scenarios that Grandfather has orchestrated for his own entertainment? That would also help explain the problem that caused me to disdain the Boxcar Children in elementary school: mainly, how is it possible that they run into a mystery every time they leave the house??
PC: Please, you know how hard it is to get a book published. That’s why we have a blog. And now that you’ve brought it up, we are going to have to reread the rest of the books to see if we can spot Grandfather puppetmastering away in the background. DANCE, MONKEY, DANCE.
R: It’s like the Wizard of Oz Boxcar Children style. Ok, now I’m reinvigorated about re-reading the whole series. Especially the one about the pizza parlor and the one where they rent a house boat. Granfather’s fingerprints are ALL OVER THAT I’m sure.