Reading Challenges

August 8, 2011

Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children


From time to time I come across a classic work of young adult fiction that somehow passed me by in my youth; The Railway Children is one such title. Initially I had it confused with that lovable series I have read called The Boxcar Children, but this novel is much older, having been published in 1905. The story details how an English family of five, including three children, move to a new home at Three Chimneys under strained circumstances. While the children are at first unaware of their family's precarious new position, they gradually come to learn that money is extremely scarce and that their father, a member of the foreign office, has been imprisoned for treason.
The nearby railway is their main source of distraction during tense times at home, and the three children befriend the station master and other railway employees who show a great deal of kindness towards them all. At the train station the children also meet a Russian exile whom they take in. With the help of new friends, the children's father is eventually found innocent of selling state secrets to the Russians and their exiled friend is reunited with his family in England. 

Although The Railway Children ends happily, the book manages to address very serious themes of class, poverty, oppression and government corruption within a framework that is comprehensible to children. Ever the optimist, Nesbit's message of solidarity and socialism make for cozy reading, the kind of world filled with kind and helpful people that I would have liked to grow up in myself.  The author uses the symbol of the train expertly to comment on destiny versus the world we create: at one point, the children devise a complicated plan to flag the train from its course in order to save it from a dangerous collision, as well as using banners to communicate with a friend on the train who responds to the message by altering his schedule, thus shifting the course of events. 

It's interesting to note that the book may have been referencing The Dreyfus Affair, the real life scandal that sent a French national accused of selling international military secrets to Germany into solitary isolation in a penal colony, an event which occurred shortly before The Railway Children was written. Remember that Dreyfus was only released thanks to the efforts of literary hero, Emile Zola. Although it didn't take the French government long to realize it had imprisoned the wrong man, new evidence was suppressed and it was only after Zola wrote his famous open letter to the government entitled J'accuse ("I accuse"), that political pressure mounted to free Dreyfus. 

All in all, The Railway Children is a charming read and an interesting historical document that reflects the political and international concerns of Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. 

It seems there are several adaptations of the book created for television and film. The most beloved, according to my research, is a version made in 1970. You can watch it in 9 parts on Youtube. Here is the first installment: 

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