Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

The Railway Children (Nesbit)We were introduced to The Railway Children through our first grade writing curriculum in January, but a series of illnesses made it difficult for me to read aloud for several weeks and we've only just finished it now in early March. To be quite honest, it was probably a bit advanced for my children, ages 7 and almost 4, but even if they didn't understand some of the quaint vocabulary and customs of English country life at the turn of the 20th century, they followed the action pretty well and at least grasped the main storyline.

I myself was rather indifferent about the story at first - it was charming in an old-fashioned sort of way and the children were realistically portrayed, not too perfect as to be unbelievable, but not so naughty as to be bad examples - until I reached the last two chapters. There I found two passages that were so full of truth, and so foreign to most everything you will find in modern children's literature, that I can and will wholeheartedly recommend this novel to every family concerned to instill biblical values in their children. Let me show you why. 

After Peter had been tormenting his sisters with talk of blood and bones, making them queasy while their new friend was having his broken leg set, the Doctor had a little talk with him:
  "'You'll excuse my shoving my oar in, won't you? But I should like to say something to you.'
  'Now for a rowing,' thought Peter, who had been wondering how it was that he had escaped one.
  'Something scientific,' added the Doctor. . .
  'Well,' said the Doctor, 'you know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything - so they have to be hardy and brave. But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and gentle.'
  'Yes,' said Peter, wondering what was coming next.
  'Well, then, you see. Boys and girls are only little men and women. And we are much harder and hardier than they are' - (Peter liked the 'we'. Perhaps the Doctor had known he would.) - 'and much stronger, and things that hurt them don't hurt us. You know you mustn't hit a girl -'
  'I should think not, indeed,' muttered Peter, indignantly.
  'Not even if she's your own sister. That's because girls are so much softer and weaker than we are; they have to be, you know,' he added, 'because if they weren't, it wouldn't be nice for the babies. And that's why all the animals are so good to the mother animals. They never fight them, you know.'
  'I know,' said Peter, interested; 'two buck rabbits will fight all day if you let them, but they won't hurt a doe.'
  'No; and quite wild beasts - lions and elephants - they're immensely gentle with the female beasts. And we've got to be, too.'
  'I see,' said Peter.
  'And their hearts are soft, too,' the Doctor went on, 'and things that we shouldn't think anything of hurt them dreadfully. So that a man has to be very careful, not only of his fists, but of his words. They're awfully brave, you know,' he went on. 'Think of Bobbie waiting alone in the tunnel with that poor chap. It's an odd thing - the softer and more easily hurt a woman is the better she can screw herself up to do what has to be done. I've seen some brave women - your mother's one,' he ended abruptly.
  'Yes,' said Peter.
  'Well, that's all; excuse my mentioning it. But nobody knows everything without being told. And you see what I mean, don't you?'
  'Yes,' said Peter. 'I'm sorry. There!'"

I don't think I've ever heard true chivalry and femininity expressed so well for a child's understanding, encouraging boys to be gentlemen and elevating a girl's softness and weakness not as disadvantages, but as being the best for the babies, just as God intended! These values have been all but lost in the cultural wars of feminism, so it is refreshing to find them stated so clearly and beautifully.

The other passage that I love so well expresses God's providence in an equally beautiful way, and again in language that makes it easy for a child to understand.

  "'I say,' said Peter, musingly, 'wouldn't it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim's leg get well at once and be all right tomorrow, and Father come home soon and -'
  'Do you miss your father very much?' Mother asked, rather coldly, Peter thought.
  'Awfully,' said Peter, briefly. . .'You see,' Peter went on slowly, 'you see, it's not only him being Father, but now he's away there's no other man in the house but me - that's why I want Jim to stay so frightfully much. Wouldn't you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?'
  Peter's mother put her arm round him suddenly, and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said:
  'Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right - in the way that's best for us.'"

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the WordYes, I'm glad God is writing the book of our lives, and it is wonderful to find a story that communicates that truth and that will appeal to both boys and girls. We will be adding this to our own library soon, and I hope that both my daughter and son will pick it up to read on their own in a few more years.

Be sure to check out other Read Aloud Thursday posts at Hope is the Word.


Carrie said...

This sounds awesome! I've only read one Nesbit book but I was intrigued. I have a few more sitting on my shelf (can't remember if this title is among them!) but I'd like to read it.

Thanks for the reminder!

Beth said...

We are reading Five Children and It by Nesbit and we definitely will be reading more of her books.

Anonymous said...

We went through a big Nesbit phase a year or so ago. I found they were great for listening to on audiobooks in the car. Somehow the old-fashioned language is easier to hear that way.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

Oh, my girls REALLY wanted to hear more of The Railway Children when we read the excerpt from WWE. We don't have it, though--only The Children and It, and I haven't thought to seek it out at the library. I think I might take Alice's suggestion above and find it in audiobook. I'll bet it would be a lovely one to enjoy that way.

I agree with your estimation of the messages in the book, and no, you'll NEVER find such a message in a modern book.
I'm so glad you linked up this week!

Anonymous said...

I confess that I immediately thought of a couple of young boys I'd like to instill that message in. :-) I like the "No one knows everything without being told" at the end too. These are values that need to be instilled in this hurried, confused world.

I'm curious about this book. We tried The Five Children and It twice but it didn't really click as a read-aloud, but maybe this one would be a better fit.

Page Turner said...

Hmmmm...I'm not sure if I want to read Five Children and It or The Enchanted Castle next, or maybe the Book of Dragons would be an excellent follow-up to The Reluctant Dragon. At any rate, we certainly will be reading or listening to more E. Nesbit books in the near future!

Carol in Oregon said...

I loved the Railway Children. I *highly* recommend The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods. The interplay between the siblings entertained me.

Nesbit is an author who surprises me. There are so many ways in which we don't share beliefs, but, as illustrated in the passages you offered, the stuff she gets right is so excellent.

Thanks for a fabulous review.