What a challenge! To go, overnight, from being a loving wife amidst the warmth of a close family to a single mother struggling to keep it all together would test even the best. In The Railway Children, the mother of Peter, Roberta, Phyllis does just this. After her devoted husband is framed and throw into prison, this brave woman takes her three children to the country and spends herself to give them a semblance of the family-life that they had known until then.
The children know that for some unknown reason dad has ‘temporarily’ gone away. They also are patently aware that their financial situation has suffered a mysterious reversal – “…you may have butter and jam on your bread, but not both!” However, because their mother generously gives herself to maintain the cheerful environment that they are used to, in blissful ignorance, they continue their childhood in much the same way as before.
The children’s days centre around exploring the new and exciting world of the local village railway. With their honest and simple manner, they win over all they meet: station master, engineers, passengers, and numerous village personalities are all happy to have made their cheerful acquaintance. Through countless adventures, the intrepid trio manage to alert a train to the impending danger of a landslide covering the tracks; they pull a stranded baby from a burning barge, and they help rescue an injured schoolboy inadvertently left stranded by his cross-country cronies in a train tunnel with a broken leg.
The children specialise in looking after others and looking after each other. Their unfortunate situation and their unusual adventures don’t immunise them from indulging in the usual sibling vices. But, by and large, their vigilant parental up-bringing has been such (where high expectations, good manners, cheerfulness -a few tears -, and lots of hugs were probably the norm) that these fraternal frailties are often very minor and easily overcome. The children learn to thrive in their daily interactions where the good of the others is usually given first priority.
David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.