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RS Reviews: Duck and the Diesel Engine - The Turning Point

Duck & The Diesel Engine

Reviewed by Dmman33

I simply love Duck and the Diesel Engine. I love the realism; I love the characters; I love the drama. Perhaps more than any other of Wilbert's Railway Series volumes, it marks the point where these books evolved from simple children's stories based on reality to realistic stories with a purpose. A bold claim, to be sure. But certainly this book marks a sea change in how Wilbert related his stories to the real world of rail he so loved. Instead of simply using his characters to dramatize railway incidents, he actively critiques them. By the late 1950s, diesel power had made significant inroads into British Rail. Who could have known where it could lead? Here, Wilbert offers an answer: nowhere. The destruction of mainline steam is only talked about and dreamed. The road that ends at Enterprising Engines begins here, and here at the beginning it is at its most dramatic.

The most striking and unique aspect of Duck and the Diesel Engine is its hero and villain dynamic. While Wilbert offers criticism with his other diesel antagonists, his first, the devious shunter Diesel, is a different machine entirely. He may not carry the same level of existential menace as later diesels, but by having him severely impact a character over multiple stories --through his own actions--he serves as a more dangerous and frightening villain in his own right. The word 'villain' is most important here: no similar character exists in any of the books. When faced with humiliation in 'Pop Goes the Diesel,' he doesn't leave. Instead he tries to get his own back through underhanded means, and succeeds! Even more fascinating is how Wilbert has written him, with an artful whole. Flattery and two-facedness are integral to his character. He is so deferential to the Main Line Engines when he first appears, yet reveals his true nature to Duck as soon as they are alone. The resulting effect on the reader is superb. Could there be a more dramatic and suspenseful ending to a Railway Series story than 'Dirty Work,' with our hero defeated by Diesel's deceit?

Likewise, Duck is among the most intriguing of both Awdrys ' engines, signifying a turning point himself; little surprise that he is so popular. As Martin Clutterbuck notes in his Preamble to his Real Lives of Thomas site, Duck is the first 'adult,' engine character, with his earlier ones being 'naughty children.' Duck is the first engine introduced not only as a member of a class, but coming from a corporate heritage: his Great Western origin is simply inescapable (and is perhaps the reason why he has appeared so little as of late). Of course, back in Percy the Small Engine a reader outside the world it was first published would have little understanding of what being 'Great Western' meant outside of 'doing work without Fuss.' In this book, it is defined. The arrival of the first real engine into the Railway Series, City of Truro, and his record-making legend, marks a Great Western Engine as capable of truly great things. The next story notes how nuanced this idea can be. Sure, Duck may be highly competent, but his pride has made enemies. Of course the annoyed main-line engines would flock from a bossy, uppity underling to one who acknowledges their fame. When Gordon, Henry and James bar him from the shed, Duck finally receives his comeuppance.

His redemption makes for one of the Railway Series' most griping stories. In 'A Close Shave,' lives are actually at risk, saved by the determination of Duck, his crew and the railway personel. Through his bravery when it is most needed, Duck has truly become a 'Great' Western engine. Notably, Wilbert's version is a good deal darker than Allcroft/Mitton's adaptation. Much more time seems to have passed between Duck's banishment and the 'close shave.' The three Main Line Engines don't speak to him at all during his weeks away, so he helps out engines from the Other Railway. Most importantly, Diesel is not sent away immediately. The Fat Controller tells Duck that his nemesis was sent away after telling lies about Henry, not immediately. Note to anyone thinking of adapting this volume: show this happening. I have been wanting to see it dramatized for ages.

Previous Railway series volumes had strong narrative through-lines before, Thomas the Tank Engine being the most obvious example, with each story leading directly into another. But what makes Duck and the Diesel Engine stand out is the presence of the other factors: the hero/villain, steam/diesel connection. Clutterbuck notes the clash of the 57xx PT and the Class 08 is one of roles, but in Wilbert's book, it is one of personalities as well. Both engines have pride in their build and heritage, but one uses it as a call to action and the other as an excuse for arrogance and treachery. It is both this conflict and the technical one that provide the drama here. Is it any surprise that HiT keeps trying to revive it with their Steamies and Diesels? Sure, they can find the drama, but what about the realism, and the characters?


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