The past six months have been unusual for me in the ways that they’ve been unusual for a lot of folks in the US – there’s a pandemic, and near everything is disrupted. One of the effects of pandemic life for me was that I spent a great deal of time reading to my four-year-old. Our child care regime disappeared, and my partner and I had to scramble, like most folks, to fill in the gaps. During the summer months especially, when my professional duties were relatively light and my partners considerably heavier, the four-year-old and I would spend a good number of hours in any given week reading. There was a lot of repetition, of course.
I have strong feelings about limiting my child’s screen time because I was a television junkie growing up. I wanted to watch TV all the time. And I don’t want that to be the four-year-old’s experience, so instead I read to them. Or I try to anyways – reading out loud is a fairly strenuous activity, it turns out. My partner often falls asleep after a solid quarter hour – I sometimes struggle to stay awake myself. But the four-year-old seemingly never gets tired of being read to, and can become quite insistent at times that we read stories.
Around their fourth birthday, I gave my child a copy the collected Railway Series by the Rev WA Awdry. These tales are known popularly today as the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series, and have been retold in print and on television. As a kid in the 1980s, I had a copy of a short anthology of the original stories given to me by one of my mother’s coworkers who was Canadian. The original stories are quintessentially British – indeed, Awdry was an Anglican priest – but my father’s family had roots in the railroads, and, like any child, I had a fascination with trains. I can recall being aware of the “Shining Time Station” television series in the ’90s, by which time I had no interest in “kid stuff” but thought it was cool that Ringo Starr played the Conductor (effectively the series narrator). There have been other TV series since then that I am not familiar with, and, as I mentioned above, I have almost no interest in showing my child, let alone watching myself.
At some point we got a hold of the tattered Engine Stories anthology from my childhood, and the kid took to it, having also a fascination with trains. Trains run through the town we live in on the regular because of the large silica quarry operating a few blocks west of us. For the past couple of decades it has been quite active, as silica is important in hydraulic fracking, and there are trains running in and out of it on a daily basis (which can sometimes be a real hassle, as they hold up traffic in unpredictable ways). But the upshot is that the kiddo has been able to see trains up close.
I ordered a used copy of of the complete collection from a discount seller on abebooks.com and presented it as a birthday present – kiddo took little interest at first, and I was kind of disappointed. But within a week, we began binge reading the stories and so began a couple of months of marathon readings on a near daily basis.
The Railway Series, as they were originally known, are astonishingly consistent and, in my estimation, nearly perfect children’s literature. The collection is comprised of 26 books, which each (with one exception) contain four individual stories. The stories are more or less loosely related within each book. Each story contains roughly 6 color illustrations, with a couple of paragraphs or story under each. The illustrations are bright and friendly, but also accurate depictions of steam engines: Awdry was an early railroad conservationist, and had been basically obsessed with steam locomotives from childhood. He had grown up near a railway, and later remarked that, as a little boy laying in bed in the early evening, he could hear very clearly the character of each locomotive in the sounds they made. The series developed out of bedtime stories he told his son in the early 1940s.
The timing and placement of Awdry’s life and career are, I think, crucial to the overall impact of the books. He’s born in 1911 to an Anglican priest (who was, at the time, 56 – Mrs. Awdry was 30 years younger, the second wife after the death of the first, along with Awdry’s three older half-siblings) and grows up in rural England. Without having all the facts at hand, I imagine Awdry was quite old fashioned – a bit of a throw back. He grows up and becomes an Anglican cleric like his father, and spends his career moving around England serving in country parishes like the one where he grew up.
The first book in the series, The Three Railway Engines, is published in 1945, just after the end of the second World War. The original artwork would be redone and the book re-released on account of Awdry’s insistence on accurate illustrations of the engines. The second book came out the following year and introduced the now famous Thomas. There was a pause of a year, and then, beginning in 1948, Awdry released a book every year until 1972.
The period of 1945 to 1972 corresponds neatly to the glory years of economic expansion and development in western Europe and North America. The Railway Series was quite successful as popular children’s literature, but it was also a highly romanticized view of the old days. More importantly, as readers of the series know, Awdry’s stories were heavily influenced by Victorian morality. Practically every story is a morality tale. The engines all want to be “really useful,” and are duly punished for sins of pride and sloth and so on. The device of the ironic turn – a character makes a flippant remark at the beginning of the tale only to have it turned against them by the end – is frequently used.
One thing that really fascinates me about the stories is that, for all the talk of being “useful,” the advance of technology is strenuously resisted. The steam engine characters are cast as noble and virtuous, whereas the encroaching diesels are most often cruel and vicious. It often makes me think of how Americans talk about how we don’t “make anything anymore” and are given to wistful rhapsodizing over the lost glories of American manufacturing. We want to be innovative and clever, but also we’d like things to be stable and predictable.
The other really fascinating aspect of the stories for me is that they feel very much like a capitalist mythology to me. Greek myths often feature characters that are half-human and half-beast (or however one should phrase that) – satyrs are half-goats, centaurs half-horse, and so on. I’ve read that this is due to the close association of people with their domesticated animals, and the tension that arises out of that. Similarly, in our age of capitalism, we often fantasize about being machines, or ghosts in machines, or in someway having our humanity subsumed by machinery. The engines follow this same logic.
I’d like to do a couple or three more posts about Awdry, and then perhaps some about other stories we read over the summer: Winnie the Pooh; the Frog and Toad series, and others like it – Minnie and Moo and Mouse and Mole in particular; Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mister Fox, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; EB White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; Alice in Wonderland, Velveteen Rabbit and The Wizard of Oz; and the books of Beatrix Potter. I’m not trying to write book reviews – there are plenty of those – but rather think a little bit about these stories in broader contexts. They’re children books, but they’re also kind of anachronistic. I often wonder what effect reading old books might have on my twenty-first century kiddo, and I certainly think about the effect of repetitive reading on the both of us. Its something different from what this blog has been – and I’m hoping to get it started back up in a more light hearted (and much less political) way.