Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458
The first chapter of The Railway Children begins by establishing Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis as ordinary middle-class children in Edwardian England, but such normalcy quickly vanishes when Father mysteriously leaves home. Father’s disappearance is the key problem of the novel and the force behind Bobbie’s growing up, and the book...
(The entire section contains 458 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The first chapter of The Railway Children begins by establishing Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis as ordinary middle-class children in Edwardian England, but such normalcy quickly vanishes when Father mysteriously leaves home. Father’s disappearance is the key problem of the novel and the force behind Bobbie’s growing up, and the book concludes with his return to the family. The primary events, however, are the adventures that the children have after moving with their mother to a country house near the railroad tracks.
Besides having their father absent and moving to a new place, the children must also cope with changing economic conditions; Mother must conserve both food and coal. The children’s scrapes and misadventures in the first part of the book are a result of their recent poverty. One time, Peter steals coal from the railway station and is caught; the station master forgives him, but Peter learns both shame and responsibility. When Mother falls ill and the children worry that they cannot afford the food that the doctor says she needs, they ask for help from the old gentleman whom they wave to every morning when his train goes by. When Mother recovers and learns what they have done, she is angry and tells them never to ask strangers for assistance.
Their later adventures, however, revolve around helping others. Their mother takes in a Russian political prisoner and writer who has escaped to England in order to look for his family, and Bobbie, trusting in the old gentleman (now revealed as a railway director) to help once more, asks him to find the man’s family. The old gentleman succeeds and shows great admiration and respect for the children’s mother. The children also manage to avert a train accident after a landslide has covered the tracks; provide a birthday party for the railway porter, Albert Perks; rescue a baby and dog from a burning barge on the canal; and help a boy named Jim who has broken his leg in the railway tunnel.
Eventually, Bobbie stumbles on an old newspaper article about her father and learns that he has been sentenced to hard labor for treason. Distraught, she speaks to her mother and learns that her father has been framed but that nothing can be done. They keep his true situation a secret from Peter and Phyllis, but Bobbie writes once more to the old gentleman, asking him to help clear her father. He turns out to be Jim’s grandfather, and he not only restores the family’s economic standing but also assures Bobbie that he has always had doubts about her father’s case and will do what he can. Several weeks later, their father is freed and returns to the family.