Study Guide for THE BOXCAR CHILDREN PLAY Plot Summary

Study Guide for
Plot Summary
The Boxcar Children tells the story of the four Alden
children and their struggle to survive on their own
during America’s Great Depression.
The play begins with a shock. Henry, Jessie, Violet,
and Benny are sitting outside an office, having nearly
drowned. Their parents were not as fortunate; they
died leaving the four children orphaned.
Here’s the conversation the children overhear:
Mrs. Alberts: The county can probably find permanent homes for the three older ones—foster homes on farms somewhere that they can earn their own keep, but that little one—he’s a problem.
Officer Banning: The problem will solve itself, I reckon. Like I said, some relative will step forward as soon as they hear the news, and take the problem off our hands...
To avoid being split up, and before the grown-ups can act, the four children take off on their own.
Life on the run is cold and frightening, but they persevere by encouraging one another and
relying on their resourcefulness. After a couple of nights sleeping out in the open, they discover
an abandoned boxcar that becomes their home. Henry ventures out and finds work with Dr.
Truman, and with his earnings he is able to purchase food and other necessities. The others
discover a nearby dump where they find things to outfit their refuge. They combine their
talents and resources to create a safe home for themselves.
Dr. Truman comes across a notice in the newspaper offering a reward for news about the
children and puts the facts together. He teams with a kindly social worker, Sarah Calder, to
bring the children to their grandfather, a wealthy mill owner whom they had never met. They
resist until Violet becomes very ill and needs the help of her grandfather.
When the children get to know him, they realize how kind he is and are comfortable joining
his household. Sensing that they miss their old home, their grandfather surprises them by
having the boxcar moved onto his estate—complete with the cracked cups from the dump and
four beds made of pine needles.
Henry –the oldest brother. He is looked up to as co-leader of the four. He likes to read, is realistic
and intelligent, and also is a hard worker. He does not trust grown-ups.
Jessie – She is Henry’s twin sister and the other co-leader of the four children. She likes to take
charge more than Henry does and is bossy at times, but is mostly practical, more so than Henry is.
She takes care of the younger kids.
Violet “Vi” –Vi can be a bit stubborn. She likes to be and stay clean and keep everything in order.
Benny –the youngest of the four children. Though he is slower at learning than the others, he is
the most inventive and creative of all the children.
Kid – a resident of Hooverville.
Mr. Alden - Mr. Alden is the children’s long-lost grandfather. He’s rich, demanding, and stubborn
(like Violet), but practical (like Jessie).
Cookie – a resident of Hooverville who plays banjo and harmonica. These two characters are
played by the same actor.
Officer Banning - Officer Banning is a police officer who is looking for the four children.
Sarah Calder – The social worker dedicated to finding the missing Alden children. She is caring,
and has the children’s best interest at heart, even if it means bending the rules.
Mrs. Alberts – Mrs. Alberts is the school principal who first discovers the children. She deems
them a “problem that has to be solved” and is the one who causes the children to run away.
Mrs. Truman - Mrs. Truman is Sam’s mom. She is loving, and wants to give the kids a chance.
She is there with cookies and lemonade, but also points out what needs to be done in the time at
Baker’s Wife – a townsperson – not very nice. These three characters are played by the same
Samuel Truman – Sam befriends Henry, likes to talk about sports, and takes Henry in. He is also
the defender of the children, and doesn’t want them to be handed over to the system.
Big Mike – a resident of Hooverville. These two characters are played by the same actor.
The play is adapted from the book series of the same name. Things have to change for the stage
and you won’t see all of the events from the books.
The style of The Boxcar Children is known
as realism. Although the play is fictional, the
onstage action is true to real life. In other
words, the Alden kids behave just like
regular boys and girls and wear clothes like
regular kids from the 1930’s. The way they
speak to each other on stage is realistic to
how siblings speak to each other in real life.
By choosing to write the play in a realistic
style, the playwright makes it easier for
audience members to identify with the story
and characters on stage. Events that happen
in real life happen here.
About the Author, Gertrude Chandler Warner
Gertrude Chandler Warner was born in Putnam, Connecticut, on April
16, 1890, to Edgar and Jane Warner. From the age of 5, Gertrude
Chandler Warner dreamed of being a famous author. She wrote
stories for her grandfather, and each Christmas she gave him one of
these stories as a gift. Her family lived near the railroad tracks, and she
would spend hours watching the trains go by. Sometimes she could
look through the window of a caboose and see a small stove, a little
table, cracked cups, and a tin coffee pot boiling away! She liked to
imagine how much fun it would be to live in a boxcar or caboose.
When she got older, Gertrude became a first grade teacher. Once, when
she was sick and had to stay home from teaching, she thought up the story about the Boxcar
Children, inspired by her childhood memories of watching the trains. What a way to spend a sick
day! She read the story to her classes and rewrote it many times so the words were easy to
understand. Some of her pupils spoke other languages at home and were just learning English. The
Boxcar Children gave them a fun story that was easy to read. She went on to write 19 books about
Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny!
About the Playwright, Barbara Field
Barbara Field is a playwright who has written original plays
and adaptations that have been seen all across the country and
all over the world! In 1971, she and four other playwrights
formed a group called The Playwrights’ Center, which helped
playwrights to work on their plays and to get connected with
people and theatres who wanted to perform their plays. The
Playwright’ Center is now the biggest playwriting center in
the country! Other works for children include adaptations of
Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, based on the books
by Charles Dickens and I Was a Rat! based on the book by
Philip Pullman.
Historical Background:
The Boxcar Children takes place in the summer of 1930, right at the beginning of America’s
Great Depression. The Great Depression began in October 1929 and lasted for about ten years.
During this time, people all across the country and all around the world lost their jobs, their
homes, and their savings. Sometimes people had to travel very far to find work, and the jobs
were few and far between. At the height of the Great Depression, it is estimated that about
250,000 teenagers were living on the road in America. Can you imagine that?
Children had it tough, too. Many children had to quit school to work long hours in factories in
order to help support their families. Some schools were closed completely because there wasn’t
enough money to pay teachers. However, many people look back on this as a happy time because
people really needed to pull together to help one another.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President, he created several projects which included building
roads and dams, writing plays and painting murals, and creating public parks all of which put
many people back to work.
From the Script:
In the play, Benny asks Jessie “What’s a Depression?” Jessie answers, “A Depression is when lots
of folks lose their money very fast, then they have to fire the people who were working for them,
then no one has any money.”
Terms from the Play:
The Crash - the US Stock Market crash on October 29, 1929
Hooverville - makeshift communities built by wanderers. They were named after Herbert
Hoover, the President at the time of the Crash
Squatter - a person who is living on land he does not own or rent
Scavenge - to hunt (“For treasure!” says Jessie)
Things you will recognize from The Great Depression Era:
Here are some really good things that also happened during the tough times, that you still enjoy
• Dr. Seuss began writing for children.
• The game Monopoly was created.
• The Empire State Building was completed.
• In 1935, Congress declared “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem
Talk About It!
Some of this will sound familiar to students whose families are struggling under the current
economic crisis. Sometimes studying a work of literature or era of history can be a good jumping off
point for students to talk about their own circumstances.
If there’s a word that represents a resounding theme in American’s response to The Depression it
would be “resourcefulness.” Americans did not dwell on problems; they got busy and solved them.
How can your students respond to their current status with resourcefulness?
Recycle It!
Encourage your children to think of all the things
the boxcar children used as substitutes for
necessary items. Have them try to recall at least five
things that the children recycled into something
The first, most obvious example of recycling was
the boxcar itself! It was abandoned by the railroad,
but it made a great shelter for them. Their refrigerator was a hole in a rock behind a waterfall, sand
was used as scouring powder, a stump for a step,
pine needles for soft beds, and a ladle was a stick
with a tin can tied to it. Their store was the nearby
dump where they scavenged dishes and cups and
the wheels with which to make a wagon.
Teachers: Divide the class into small groups and let them brainstorm at least three new uses for
each of the materials listed below that might be found at a dump:
Egg Cartons
Wooden crate
Flower pots
Old tires
What else might you find in a dump that could be reused?
Now have them consider of all the things a school throws away during one week. Have the small
groups interview the lunchroom staff, the main office staff, the librarian, and other teachers to get
a list of things that are tossed. Could any of that be used for a new purpose?
Sequencing the events:
Preparation: Write each of these sentences on separate sheets of construction paper. Try to use
letters large enough for the class to see the words when the cards are held up.
Here is a list of events that happened in Boxcar Children. The goal is to have the class put them in
order according to how they occurred in the book/play. Each student or pair of students will have
a paper. This list provided here is in order so mix them up when you pass them out. Keep a copy of
the correct order for yourself! Start out by saying, “Who thinks they have the first thing that
happened in the book?” The person who has the correct first event stands in front of the class with
the card facing the class. Then continue until all cards are in order.
The children go to the bakery.
The children sleep in a haystack.
Jessie goes shopping.
They find a boxcar in the woods.
Benny finds wheels.
Henry gets a job with Dr. Truman.
Violet gets very sick.
Grandfather meets the children.
They go to live at Grandfather’s big house.
Talk About It!
When you read a book, your imagination
determines what the characters and different
places look like.
• Did the characters in the play look differently
than you imagined?
• When the children began to live in the boxcar,
there was not a real boxcar in the theatre. How
did the play help your imagination see a boxcar?
• When did the play show you real things, and when did you have to use your imagination?
When the children ran away, they stopped back at home to pick up useful things to take with
them. They had a short time, and they could not carry much. It was useful to take money, but it
was comforting to take a picture of their mom and dad.
• If you were going away and could only take three things, what would you take and why would
you choose them?
• Are the items useful or comforting?
• Why is it important to have both?
What would it be like to live on your own without any adults?
What would you do?
What would be fun about the experience?
What do you think would be hard?
Draw About It!
The children’s grandfather wants them to be happy in their new home with him so he relocates the
boxcar. They can stay there when it pleases them. If you were allowed to redecorate a room any way
you wish, what would it look like? Pretend that before work on your new room begins, you must
provide a drawing of what the room looks like. What special things does your room have?
Pretend you are the printer who must make the reward poster for information about the missing
children. Make a poster that has a picture of the children, their names, the amount of the reward,
and who to call.
Act it Out! A 5 Minute Quiet Time Activity
Here is a brief, calming-down activity. Have the children rest their heads on their desks or tables
and go through this imaginative experience. Remember to soften your voice, read slowly, and pause
between imagination prompts. Enjoy!
“When the Alden children first run away, they spend their nights sleeping outdoors under the stars.
Imagine that you are sleeping in the woods on a bed of pine needles . . . feel a nice, cool evening
breeze blow across your face . . . relax and imagine what sounds that you might hear . . . imagine
what you might see at night that you may not see during the day. . . . . imagine the special smells
that there are outdoors . . . after a while you drift off into a peaceful sleep . . .now imagine what may
wake you up in the morning . . . stretch and imagine what you will tell everyone about your night
under the stars.”
Additional Reading
These titles can be used to supplement the Boxcar
Children experience. Some cover the time period
of the Depression while others discuss Railroads.
• Growing Up in the Great Depression by Richard Wormer
• Kids During the Great Depression by Lisa A. Wroble
• Depression Kids by James Edwin Alexander
• Instant Social Studies Activities Folders: The Great Depression
• Children of the Great Depression by Russell Freedman
• The Great Depression by R. Conrad Stein
• Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar
Children by Mary Ellen Ellsworth
• Gertrude Chandler Warner by Jill C. Wheeler
Are the actors scared to perform?
Some actors are a little nervous, but that feeling usually goes away once they walk out onto the
Where do the actors go when they walk off the stage?
When an actor stands on the side of the stage where the audience cannot see him, but he can see
the stage, he is standing “in the wings.” Some actors may have enough time to go their dressing
rooms, which are downstairs from the theatre, or perhaps they wait in the Green Room, which is a
place for actors to relax.
Who gives you your costumes?
There is a costume designer who draws a picture or “rendering” of what she thinks the character
should look like. The costume is then sewn, purchased, borrowed, or “pulled.” We say that we pull
a costume when we go into our huge storage room to find a costume that has already been used in
another production.
Why do you turn off all the lights sometimes?
We turn off the lights at the start to let everyone know that the play is beginning. Sometimes, after
a part of the story is finished, we turn off the lights to change the scenery; we’re asking your
imagination to take you to a different time or place.
Is this the actors’ real job?
All of the actors in The Boxcar Children are volunteers. During the day they work as teachers,
students, professors, architects and in many other professions. Our crew are also volunteers.
How do I get involved in the theatre?
Take classes! Audition for a role! Visit us at to learn more about afterschool classes, summer camps, and productions.
We would like to thank our sponsors
for supporting The Boxcar Children:
Zoo, Arts and Parks
National Endowment for the Arts
B.W. Bastian Foundation
Mountain West Small Business Finance
R. Harold Burton Foundation