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What the hell happened to the Boxcar Children’s parents?

Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden on a late '80s printing of the series' first book
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden on a late '80s printing of the series' first book

The internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

There’s always been something alluring about orphans. Not the “11 years old and stuck in children’s services hell” kind of orphans, but the ones that, like Huck Finn, strike out on their own, living off the land as free children without a care in the world. Yes, the reality of what that life would actually be is horrible, but romanticized in fiction—and especially in fiction meant for children and young adults—that kind of independence is tantalizing.

Enter The Boxcar Children, four literary siblings originally created in 1924 by Connecticut schoolteacher Gertrude Chandler Warner. Left without parents in a manner that the books frustratingly never reveal, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden live in a manner—even after they’re adopted by their grandfather—that’s both entertaining for young readers but that also shows a remarkable amount of self-reliance and respect for family values. In the first book, for instance, they eschew school for a life picking cherries and finding old dishes in a garbage dump. As the author bio pasted in the back of some of the books notes, Warner “liked to dress the Aldens’ independence and resourcefulness and their solid New England devotion to using up and making do.”

The Boxcar Children—or, rather, the idea of the Boxcar Children—has been well used up. To date, there have been about 150 books written about the four mystery-solving orphans, only 19 of which were written by Warner herself before her death in 1979. Warner’s books, most of which were penned in the ’50s and ’60s, are about quaint topics like houseboat trips and whatever a “caboose mystery” is, while more modern ghostwritten books have explored The Mystery Of The Soccer Snitch and The Rock And Roll Mystery. There was also an animated movie version of The Boxcar Children released in 2014, with Martin Sheen voicing kindly (and rich) Grandfather Alden.

Given that the Boxcar Children zeitgeist has lasted more than 90 years, there’s got to be something behind these stories that generations of readers have grown to love. The books have never been flashy and have hardly seen any merchandising, despite the aforementioned movie. Still, the series has sold more than 50 million print copies worldwide, and in 2012 the first book, The Boxcar Children, was named one of the Top 100 Chapter Books of all time by the School Library Journal. Both kids and educators love these books. So do they hold up? Years after both their release and this writer’s initial consumption, is the series still as enchanting and entertaining as those kinds of sales numbers would suggest?

Short answer: Kind of. Suffice it to say, the books certainly aren’t written for 34-year-old adults. Though Warner’s first Boxcar novel came out in 1924, she updated it and released it again in 1942, when the whole series really started to catch on, possibly better fitting into the post-Depression, WWII-era. Written for kids reading at a second- or third-grade level, the series is easy to flip through now, especially if you’re using (as this author was) the Scholastic paperbacks released in the late ’80s and early ’90s and featuring what looks to be about 22-point font. I finished eight books in maybe four hours total. That simplicity of language was intentional, with Warner aiming to reach students who spoke English as a second language, but reading the original books now, years after their release, the dialogue can get a little tedious. Everything—everything—is spelled out, from the meals the Aldens eat to the way their dog, Watch, barks. Take, for example, this passage from The Yellow House Mystery, book three in the series:

Benny was on his way home from school one day in spring. The minute he went into the house, he heard the telephone ringing. Then he heard Mrs. McGregor, the housekeeper, answering it.

“It’s for you, Benny,” she said. She was excited. “It’s your cousin Joe.”

Benny went to the telephone. “Hello Joe,” he said.

“We’re going to blast, Benny!” Joe called over the telephone. “The men are almost ready to blast the top off the cave. They say that you children can come over to the island, if you stay right with me. You get the others and come along over.”

Benny then thinks about all these details at length, relays all the information to his brother, relays the information to his sisters, and then makes the case to his grandfather: not all at once, but over five solid pages of earthy, declarative 6-year-old chatter. It can be a little much, as that kind of exposition skews a little “see spot run” for grown-ass adults. But for early readers just tackling chapter books, it might be just the slow explanation they need.

In an illustration from the first book, Jessie makes stew.

Though Warner was always careful not to characterize the Boxcar Children books as just “juvenile mysteries,” that’s pretty much what they are, with the Aldens and whoever’s along for the ride in each book—grandfather, cousin Joe, Benny’s friend Mike, a sailor named Lars—tackling some extremely basic whodunit. In book 10, Schoolhouse Mystery, the gang retreats to a supposedly boring fishing town for a month or so, only to discover that the undereducated residents of the town are being swindled by a crooked, over-smiling antique buyer. He’s underpaying them for things he’s going to sell, and after the kids figure this out they, along with their grandfather and his man Carter, help the residents get the compensation they deserve. They also teach summer school to the learning-starved children of the town while they’re around, just because. As in each book, the Aldens end the story happy they were able to both help people and have an adventure, because, as Benny puts it at the end of book 12, The Houseboat Mystery, “We always have some excitement.”

Youngest Boxcar Benny, thus the “comedian”—not that the Boxcar Children books are funny in any way, because they are certainly not, with nary a titter to be found, let alone an actual joke—is always after excitement. Benny’s also always the one who breaks the case, whether it’s by wandering off alone and befriending a hermit in book three, The Yellow House Mystery, or literally stumbling into a hole and meeting Peter, the mysterious character the group is after in book six, Blue Bay Mystery. In a way, it’s nice that he has a personality, given that the rest of the kids don’t: Henry is the older, responsible one; Jessie the “housekeeper”; Violet the frail one who always seems to need food or warmth. But seeing the world through the eyes of a precocious and bumbling 6-year-old with a vocabulary that includes a liberal sprinkling of the words “ho-hum,” well, it can get a bit tiring. Granted, these books were written dozens of years ago and the idea of kids being able to spend their days just fishing and working on chores is a bit romantic, but modern readers—and especially savvy adults—will prefer their Aldens—and especially their Alden girls—a bit more spunky, smart, and wise. That being said, I only re-read eight of Warner’s original contributions to the series and not any of the more modern tales. Maybe the Aldens have learned to turn a phrase, use the internet—or even a phone, for crying out loud. They send telegrams—telegrams!—and dish out the sass.

In another illustration from the first book, the hungry family shares three loaves of bread.

More than anything, though, the biggest mystery behind The Boxcar Children is how the four siblings actually became the Boxcar Children. That doesn’t mean how they came to live in a boxcar, because that’s all tediously explained in book one. Rather, what the heck happened to Ma and Pa Alden? The children never, ever mention them, other than to note in book one that “they are dead.” By the end of the first book, they end up living with their paternal grandfather who lives just one town over from where they grew up. They previously didn’t like and never met him because he supposedly didn’t like their mother—another supposition that turns out to be untrue or, rather, just entirely not addressed. Maybe he did hate their mother. Maybe he used to be a hardened industrialist who drove Pa Alden to move to a farm and teach his self-sufficient kids to trust only themselves, but we just don’t know. Warner never laid out any of that information, and though a 2012 prequel, The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens Of Fair Meadow Farm, attempted to describe some of what the Alden family’s life was like when those parents were around, sample chapters make the book look like more family-friendly sweetness, rather than a detailed lead-up to whatever car crash, farming accident, or Benny-caused fire took the elder Aldens’ lives.

It’s that kind of detail that might stick in an adult reader’s craw, especially one who’s used to tidy endings and at least a little bit of emotional exposition, but—like where Grandfather Alden’s money came from other than “his mills”it’s simply never explained. The children’s glazed-over existence is not only accepted, but pretty much celebrated. As it says on the back of each Scholastic Boxcar Children edition, “One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” That’s the opening paragraph from Warner’s first book, and while it was probably once meant to be both a little sad and a little mysterious, now it embodies a New England-style lack of emotion that’s almost troubling. Sure, the Aldens are okay at solving crimes, but are they really okay inside? It’s something that a bunch of books written for second graders back in the ’20s never addresses and understandably so, but it’s also something that both young and not-so-young readers now could well adopt as their own Boxcar Children mystery.