Monday, March 24, 2014

The Railway Series by Rev W Awdry

I've been away staying with friends for a couple of weeks, as I do from time to time, to run the house and care for the children after a difficult birth. Another friend dropped by at one point in the festivities, with a gift for the children: Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection, by the Rev W Audry.

There are people whose literary recommendations I take with a grain of salt, and there are people whose lightest word causes me to rush off and add things to my Goodreads To-Read list. The donors of this book were among the latter. Still--"Thomas the Tank Engine! Really?" I said.

"Well, it's like Winnie-the-Pooh," said my friend. "There are the Disney travesties--and there are the original stories, which are wonderful."

"Like The Jungle Book," I agreed, and so I sat down with the children and dug into the real Thomas the Tank Engine.

And it was wonderful.

The Rev W Audry originally penned 26 short collections of short stories about Thomas, Edward, James, Gordon, and many other steam engines on a variety of different railway lines on the fictional Island of Sodor. The stories were published between 1945 and 1972, before Audry ran out of steam (couldn't resist) and illustrated beautifully in full colour. The first collection didn't even include the character of Thomas.

If you've read books like Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, you know that before the end of steam, people became railway enthusiasts, charmed by the unique personalities of the different trains that roared by their sleepy country villages. Nesbit's book, also for children, distilled this charm and fascination into the story of three children finding a home and growing up after the disgrace and imprisonment of their father. With much the same inspiration Awdry took a different tack: he makes the engines themselves characters, and follows them through a series of adventures based on real-life railway incidents. All over Britain, rail enthusiasts and rail workers praised the stories for their authenticity.

The children I read to were spellbound by both pictures and stories. The stories are particularly good: very short and very simple, most with some nice clear edifying moral that doesn't smack you between the eyes yet is perfectly clear to the youngest child. The word that sums them up best seems to be satisfying, for I got as much enjoyment out of them as the children did. Here's why.
  • The characters are well-drawn. It seems strange to talk of steam engines as being human, but that's what they are--well-defined characters with both good and bad points.
  • The stories usually end with disobedient engines being reproved and punished, or obedient engines being rewarded. Like in real life, there are always consequences for actions.
  • But, the stakes and consequences are always authentic railway predicaments.
This last point is where The Railway Series always shines. So, in one story, the drama is provided when one of the engines, Percy, is asked by another engine to make sure the Vicar and his Children's Outing get home safely. Percy would rather be at home in the shed, but remembering his promise to see the Vicar home, presses on through a storm and even gets stuck in a flood. The moral is hardly new--one must keep one's word, even when it is difficult to do so--but the backdrop of authentic railway life gives heft to the story. In the very next story, Percy gets fat-headed from his triumph over the floodwaters, drives a foolish bargain with some trucks, and ends up plunging into sea-water. The Fat Controller scolds him for disobedience and he is sent for repairs. This quirky combination of fable and realism is what makes the stories work so very well.

Though I haven't had the chance to read every single one of the Railway Series stories, I hugely enjoyed the ones I did read, and so did the children. A great read-aloud choice for boys particularly.

Get Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection from Amazon or The Book Depository (affiliate links).


Unknown said...

I watched Thomas the Tank Engine most Saturday mornings when I was little. The books sound even better! I'll have to check them out, the illustrations look beautiful too :)
I'm 15 years old and my friend and I recently started a book blog of our own, would you mind checking it out?
Thanks so much!

Suzannah said...

The books are great! All the best with your blog, it looks lots of fun :)


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