Places to go: The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
North West Hub Leader at The Reader, Anna McCracken takes us on today's audio adventure and reads from The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. The theme for our readings in February is 'Close to the Heart' and we hope the poetry, readings and recommendations we have chosen can help us stay connected over the coming weeks.
Not all travel and adventure takes us to exotic places. For the lovely family in the Railway Children, their adventure begins with a ‘dreadful change’ that came upon the family. Their adventure included loss, a lack of freedom, anxiety about the future and new discoveries.
The Railway Children was a book I enjoyed as a child, and a book I have just shared with my eldest daughter. I say ‘just’ – we read it in the first lockdown back in spring – and that feels like an age away now! Who could have imagined then the situation we continue to find ourselves in now.
Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis were like friends to us as we read. We laughed at their bickering, knowing that they were just the kind of conversations that were going on in our house too. I love the section in this extract when they are debating the small-print of their mother’s request for them to be good: ‘We’ll begin being good first thing tomorrow morning’.
The opening of the book helps us to imagine the life this family had before disaster struck, and their Father was mysteriously called away. The fullness of their lives, their relationships with one another, even their nursery with heaps of toys. ‘They did not know HOW happy [they were] till the pretty life in the Red Villa was over and done with and they had to live a very different life indeed.’
‘The dreadful change came quite suddenly’. That hinge moment – the before and after that will define their lives for ever. The phone call we received in March to say one of our children had developed symptoms, and could we pick them all up and self-isolate; the sudden onset of changed plans and limited freedoms. Others I know have received far worse phone calls this year.
The children in this book are wonderful, but the hero for me is Mother. She’s not a superhero – we see her worry, we see her get ill, we see her frailty as she has to take on a new role in this time of crisis. She is always honest with her children – but shields them from the harsh reality of the truth. She shares her limitations with them and their role in helping her get through: ‘I am very worried about it, and I want you all to help me and not to make things harder for me.’
During week 1 of lockdown in March, when we were adjusting to homeschool and keeping the family going amidst all the change and worry, my husband remembered Mother to me: ‘We’ve got to play at being Poor for a bit, my chickabiddy’. That line feels dated to me, I’m uncomfortable with ‘playing at being Poor’ as if it’s a game. And yet, there’s something there for us – seeking to make the best of the situation we found ourselves in, using what we lack as an opportunity to live a new way.
Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis certainly heed this in their many adventures on the railway. Having less stuff makes them appreciate smaller things, being in want teaches them to wait for rewards. What lessons can we learn from this family in our time of crisis?