The Three Railway Engines – Rev. W. Awdry

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

Bechdel: Nope
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 1 point. C gave it a thumbs up. I didn’t.
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point

This is where it all started. The monstrous commercial machine that is Thomas the Tank Engine. With an innocuous little book published in 1911 because the good reverend’s wife convinced him to publish a book of the train stories he told to his son (whose name, in a lovely twist of synchronicity for this family, was Christopher).

The Three Railway Engines is actually a collection of three stories, and none of them even mention a little tank engine called Thomas. We’ll get to him tomorrow.

I should probably disclaim at this point to say that my son is a total Thomas FANATIC. He loves everything Sodor, and as a result I have spent more hours than I’d like to count reading these stories, watching the TV shows, and listening to “Thomas songs”. I know more about the franchise than I’d like to admit. I even once wrote a rather creepy story-for-adults based on it (in an attempt to explain why a small quiet island has so many damned railway accidents!). So I am not exactly coming at this with fresh eyes. I will, however, attempt to treat this book as a stand-alone thing for the purposes of this exercise, and not let my considerable bias get in the way.

Bechdel? HAHAHAHA. Nope. There isn’t even a single female character in this book. Total fail there. While we’re at it, despite being (mostly) trains, the characters are all pretty obviously cis white men/boys.

Ideologically, it’s a mixed bag. There is some good stuff about perseverance and working hard, and about not being a sulky spoiled brat (which, oh god, so many of these engines are), and even a few small dabs of quiet comedy here and there (I am always amused when the “fat director” (I guess he became a controller later) can’t help push and pull Henry because “My doctor has forbidden me to pull” – lazy sod). So I’ll give it one point for that.

But honestly there’s some latent classist stuff that bothers me. There is a pretty clear social hierarchy in the world of these trains where the engines are at the top, coaches come next, and the “troublesome trucks” are right at the bottom. And there is some odd bullying behaviour that goes along with this. When Gordon is mean to Edward because he’s not as strong, that’s portrayed as “bad”, but when Edward is pushing the trucks around in a similarly bullying way, that’s just “keeping them in line”. (And once the diesel trains are introduced in later books, this becomes even more apparent, but that’s a conversation for later books*.)

Also I can’t help but feel that boarding Henry up in a tunnel “forever” (not really – he gets out in the very next story) is a bit of an extreme punishment for an engine that is basically just scared of the rain. And given that there’s a definitely patriarchal relationship between the “fat director” and the (obviously childlike) trains, that’s even more disturbing – like locking your kid up under the stairs “forever” for not eating her broccoli.

There’s no denying the appeal of these stories though. Kids love them. There was no question at all about whether C was going to give it a thumbs up. I’m not though, because, despite being unable to argue against their popularity, I still find the plotline of this book fairly inane and the characters pretty boring.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Does their popularity speak for itself? Do you know of better train books?

 

  • At this point I am going to announce another feature of this blog, which is the “Rest of the Series” feature. I don’t have a particular timeline for it yet, but every so often I’ll write an extra post about the ongoing series based on the books on the original list. This won’t interrupt the daily postings of the main list – it’ll be in addition to it – which is why I’m not committing to a time line yet. đŸ™‚ I’ll just grab the next book in the series and do a write-up whenever I have time and inclination.
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