Book Review – The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

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Why The Railway Children by E. Nesbit Matters Today

Though The Railway Children is a children’s book, it’s a perfect demonstration of why a safety net is so important. In the story, you have a father who is taken away, and we learn he is arrested for being a spy, which is a false accusation. The loss of income of the primary breadwinner forces the family into poverty. Today, with the economy still in a downturn, many people are only a pay cheque away from financial devastation. This tells us, that in the good times, no matter how little we earn, we should put away some of the money for ourselves, for the rainy days that will inevitably come. The main themes in the story are bravery, kindness and compassion, hope and optimism, and the importance of family.

The Railway Children
The Railway Children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, Roberta, Phyllis and Peter are living idyllic lives with their parents in what is described as an “ordinary red-brick fronted villa, coloured glass in the front door, a tiled passage that was called a hall, a bathroom with and cold water, electric bells, French windows, and a good deal of white paint, and ‘every modern convenience,’ as the house agents say.”

The children are well-loved, and their parents make time to play with them. While they are at school, their mother writes stories and reads them to the children during tea time. And as a special treat, for their birthdays, she writes special poems for them. One day, two men come to visit their father and he leaves with them. The mother is quite upset, and tells the children not to ask questions. Shortly after the father leaves, the mother and children have to move out from suburbia into the country because their social and financial status has radically changed. And they take only the things that will be useful to them in their new life.

The mother is forced to work to take care of her family, and she does what she knows to do, which is to write children’s stories, and she has some success. Like any writer, there are times when her work is rejected and there are other times when a magazine publisher accepts the stories. In those times, the children get a special treat of buns.

The children are very aware that their situation has changed, but it doesn’t bother them that much – children are very resilient, and they are more intelligent and understanding that most adults give them credit for. The mother often emphasizes to the children that they are now poor. In The Railway Children, even among the poor, a class structure exists because there are different levels of poverty. For instance, their housekeeper, Mrs Viney, is much poorer than they are.

The three children no longer go to school, and to while the time away, they spend a lot of time exploring their new surroundings. Roberta, Peter and Phyllis love to visit the railway. While exploring they see a coal mine. At their new home, they no longer have ‘every modern convenience.’ Their home is no longer as warm as they are accustomed to, and mother doesn’t earn enough to buy the amount of coal needed. While the children explore the railway yard, Peter notices a lot of coal, and he makes up these rules as to what constitutes stealing. He comes up with the idea of taking some of the coal, but he doesn’t want to get his sisters involved in taking it. They help him to transport the coal with the aid of a wheelbarrow up the hill to their home.

One day, Peter sneaks out, not knowing that Roberta and Phyllis are following him. When he gets to the coal mine, the station manager grabs him with the intention of reporting him. The children plead for mercy, and when the station manager learns why they are stealing, he lets him go free and tells him not to steal anymore coal. Even though Peter had tried to convince himself that taking the coal wasn’t stealing, deep down he knows the difference between right and wrong.

Because of the encounter with the station master, they want to stay away, but they cannot help themselves – they cannot keep away. In no time they learn the schedule for the arrival of the trains to the station, which is close by, and they name the trains – Green Dragon, Worm of Wantley and Fearsome Fly-by-Night. They make sure that they are close by when, Green Dragon, the 9:15 am train is passing by, and they wave to the passengers, and out of first class, the hand of an older man waves back. This becomes a routine for the children.

As the story unfolds, you learn a lot about the characters. The three children are wise beyond their years, especially Roberta. And they are more resilient and stronger than their mother. The children go out into their new community and make friends, and learn about others, while the mother is wrapped up into their new circumstance. She is focused on earning money and doesn’t play with them as much as she used to. Because the children reach out to others with friendship, people in the community are kind to them.

One day the mother contracts influenza and the doctor prescribes a variety of things to help her recover. The mother decides which ones to buy because of her restricted budget. She is also very concerned about how she is going to pay for the doctor’s services. Roberta had heard Mrs Viney talking about a club that the doctor has, which enables the poorest people to afford his services. Roberta pays him a visit and asks that they be a part of the club, and he complies, even if he has to make a brand new club for them. The doctor is also poor, and he was excited that he had found a new patient. However, he is a man of compassion, and opens up the club to them. Roberta does this without her mother’s knowledge.

The children decide to take matters into their own hands to get the medicine needed for their mother to recover so they write a note to the old gentleman who always waves back to them. They write the letter and make their request, but they make it very clear that it’s an IOU and they ask him to give the package to the station manager and tell him it’s for Peter since they do not know which return train he will be on. When the 9:15 am train pulls into the station, Phyllis hands the note to the old gentleman.

At six pm in the evening there is a knock on their door, and it’s the friendly porter from the station with a package from the older gentleman. The children know that at some point they have to tell their mother what they have done, but decide to do so after she has recovered. Mother is angry because she does not want handouts, and she doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her and her family.

One day when the children go to the railway station there is a commotion, so they have to investigate. There is a distressed man there who doesn’t speak English and no one can figure out what language he is speaking. The station master suggests that the man is speaking French, but Peter knows it isn’t French because they used to study it at their school. In very bad French, “Parlay voo Frongsay” (Parlez-vous Francais), Peter asks the stranger if he speaks French, and he responds in French. Peter lets the station manager know that his mother speaks French. It so happens that on that day the mother had taken a trip, more than likely to visit her husband. In her limited French, Roberta tells the stranger that her mother speaks French.

When mother arrives, they take her to the stranger and in conversation they find out that he is Russian, has lost his train ticket and is ill. The stranger is a writer, and has written beautiful books, many of which mother has read. They take him home with them, and Roberta goes to fetch the doctor. The mother gives the stranger one of her husband’s outfit, and Roberta asks her mother if her father is dead and is told no.

As the stranger grows stronger, they learn more about his life. He was imprisoned because of his beliefs and what he writes about. He was enlisted into the army and deserted when it was safe and came to England. He knows his family is somewhere in England, but doesn’t where. Mother writes many letters to Members of Parliament, editors of newspapers, but cannot get any word on the stranger’s family.

One day while out exploring there is a bit of what appears to be a minor earthquake. Stones and trees and you name it, fall across the tracks shortly before the 3:15 train is to arrive. The children know the dangers and acted quickly. Using the girl’s red petticoats they make a flag to signal the train to stop, and they end up preventing a train crash. The children are honored for what they did, but that’s not why they did it. They have learned to be of service, to think of others, despite their changed circumstances. This plays out many times in The Railway Children.

The old gentleman is at the ceremony for their valour, and after the presentation, he and Roberta have a conversation. She tells him about the Russian stranger, Mr. Szezcpansk. The old gentleman knows people within the Russian community in London and promises Roberta that he will make some inquiries. A short while later, the old gentleman, finds out where Mr Szezcpansk’s family is, and the stranger reunites with them.

There are many tales in the book about the goodness of the children, the way that they make the lives of others much brighter. They teach the people in the community how to be a true community through their selfless actions. The old gentleman has also experienced their goodness when they rescue his grandson.

Roberta discovers from an old newspaper article that her father was arrested, and he is in prison. She goes to her mother, and they have an honest conversation. It’s difficult to believe that she is only 12 years old. Once again, she goes to her friend, the older gentleman, to talk to him. He knows about the case and had the intention of helping, now he has a reason to, because he knows the three children, and the impact the arrest has had on their lives. He also believes in the father’s innocence.

The family is reunited. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit is a story of hope, and some of the big lessons it teaches us are:

  1. The good you do for others, come back to you.
  2. The world is bigger than you. Life is more than about us.
  3. When going through a rough patch, do something good for another.
  4. Community is important. By lifting up others, we lift up everyone.
  5. Build a safety net.

I recommend The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Additional Information

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