The Boxes is the story of Annie Levi, a shy, obedient fifteen-year-old girl whose life is ruled by others. Her parents are dead, and she lives in a large old house with her Aunt Ruth, a nasty, chain-smoking, fat banker who verbally abuses Annie. "You always were an ungrateful brat" is one of Aunt Ruth's typical remarks to Annie. If there is a failing in the characterization in The Boxes, it is with Aunt Ruth, who is given no positive qualities to offset her meanness. Annie even fears that Aunt Ruth would kill her if she saw profit in it. Perhaps the portrait of Aunt Ruth is a product of Annie's biases, for Annie is the novel's narrator.
On the other hand, Annie adores her Uncle Marco, who has "thick black hair": "He had a narrow face with a strong nose and cleft chin, and pale blue eyes. He was very good looking." Annie notes that "Uncle Marco looked uncannily young," which is an early clue about what Uncle Marco does on his mysterious trips. He is not around the house much, even though he is allowed to live there, and this means that most of the time he is not available to help Annie and to protect her from Aunt Ruth. Although Annie completely admires Uncle Marco, this seems selfish of him, particularly when what he usually does on his trips is revealed. Annie very much needs a strong, fatherly figure in her life, and Uncle Marco cops out.
At the start of the novel, he chooses an odd way of helping her gain some power in her life: He gives her two boxes to guard, one that they hide in the root cellar in the basement and another that they hide in her bedroom closet, and he tells her not to touch either one and not to ever let them get near each other. Then he leaves. Annie has always obeyed Uncle Marco; indeed, as her narrative advances, she makes it plain that she has always done what grownups have told her to do. She is even a doormat for her friends such as Jeff and Linda, who use her as a messenger girl to transmit messages between them so that their parents, who do not want them seeing each other, do not find out that they are in fact dating. She is even supposed to sit with them at lunch to make it look like the three of them are hanging out, so that people do not report to their parents that Linda and Jeff are carrying on their romance at school. Linda and Jeff just talk to each other and rarely pay attention to Annie. Thus we see that Annie is a shy girl who lets other people push her around and use her without taking into account her feelings.
The Boxes is an account of how Annie learns to acquire power in her life, even as she seems to fall under the control of supernatural forces. At first, when the crab-like creatures she sets loose from the wooden box in the basement tell her what to do, Annie is her usual obedient self. She is already a messenger girl, because she passes on messages for Linda and Jeff. It is not a big step from that to obediently going to her closet and giving a message to the clockwork machine in the box there. She is declared the "nervous system," an ominous name, and she is told that she has the high honor of being part of the "three-in-one." Experienced readers of science fiction will probably note this as an important clue as to what will happen to Annie.
"You don't give somebody a box if you don't want her to open it" is an odd rationalization for a girl who always behaves herself, but Uncle Marco seems to have carefully chosen a moment in Annie's life when she must...
(The entire section is 1418 words.)