‘The Boxcar Children’ Series Was A Lot Darker Than You Might Remember

Do you remember The Boxcar Children? This series of children's novels by Gertrude Chandler Warner seems innocuous or even charming on the surface. But The Boxcar Children, initially published in 1924 and revised in 1942, is a truly terrifying series for kids. The books follow a family of four precocious orphans as they make their way through the world while living in a railroad boxcar and fending for themselves.

Many of the plot points in the initial book and subsequent novels (more than 150 titles) are straight-up dark. Included in the storyline is a father who struggles with substance use and a possible zombie outbreak. So, don’t let anyone tell you the Alden family (better known as the Boxcar Children) was ever entirely wholesome. This series has always included frightening undertones, and maybe that's part of the appeal to readers young and old. 

  • The Family's Patriarch Was Bested By Alcohol

    The darkest piece of the Alden family's backstory serves as the foundation for their father's absence. While no one knows exactly how their mother left this mortal coil, it's clear their dad perished from his struggles with alcohol. In Gertrude Chandler Warner's first Boxcar book, she reveals the people of Middlesex are aware of the father's compulsions and don't do anything to interfere. 

    Warner writes that the father imbibed so much "he could hardly walk up the rickety front steps of the old tumble-down house, and his 13-year-old son had to help him." Readers then learn the patriarch of the Aldens passes the following day.

  • The Children Are Too Distraught To Live Outside The Boxcar

    Even after their grandfather, James, adopts them, the children are too upset to live outside of the rickety boxcar they found in the woods. It's more than a home to the four Alden children; it also represents a kind of safety that was not afforded them by the outside world. 

    In the first book, the children decide to make the boxcar their home. When their grandfather asks them to stay with him, they're reticent until he reveals he had the car moved to his backyard so they can continue sleeping in it. 

  • The Children Immediately Take On Adult Roles

    Due to the loss of their parents, the oldest Alden children, Henry and Jess, immediately adopt adult roles instead of acting childish like other literary orphans. They don't goof off, and they certainly don't get into hijinks. Instead, Henry starts looking for work and takes to mowing lawns and cleaning up sheds. 

    Jess looks after their younger siblings, Violet and Ben, as if she's their mother. Even in this fictional world, the children can't relish their innocence and instead have to start earning a living.

  • The Children Each Have Only One Set Of Clothing

    It's unclear how much clothing the Alden children have when they begin living in the boxcar. However, as soon as they decide to go it alone, they cut up some of their clothes to create bedding. Throughout the first book, as they try to survive with no money, their collective wardrobe is minimal. 

    It's a sad truth that plenty of children in this situation don't have much of a wardrobe, so in this case, the book reflects real life.