Edward The Blue Engine
Reviewed by The Master
'Edward the Blue Engine' is possibly the most underrated book of the Railway Series.
When volunteers were asked to promote a single book of Awdry family's fantastic Railway Series, that book immediately came into my head to represent. It's not that I don't have other favourites, just I thought that the others had more popular characters or more dramatic storylines that didn't really need advocating. Why advocate 'Edward the Blue Engine' you may ponder? In the next few chapters, I shall attempt to explain why it is as worthy, as any other, of being 'The Best Railway Series Book' ever:
I love the illustration classically chosen for the front cover. Most of the books so far have one engine in the front, focus on the star of the book. Whilst Edward is central in this chosen illustration, he isn't alone. He is happy, running and has his friends around him. For Edward, it was never that he was to be promoted, it was that which he has done previously that becomes the summary of the shot. Next to him is Henry, the engine he helped redeem, with Thomas and James, his protégés of earlier books. The engines he taught the ways of Sodor and encouraged them better themselves. In a sense, this is the first engine of the series with who he has gathered along the way. It and some of the dialogue, leaves it very clear – Edward is the soul of Sodor's railways.
I also like that this is the last illustration of the book. It brings a sense of coming back to its beginning as well as continuity. Whatever happens, our Edward will always be there – working happily with his friends.
For myself personally - I don't believe the Railway Series, until this book, was actually railway based. These were the engine stories with special guests. It doesn't feel like day to day running of a railway until this book.
The supporting cast shoots up, from about six in all the books to date. Sidney, Charlie, Jem & the vicar are introduced. They actually go about their day to day business – talking, repairs, running a steam locomotive. These are things a boy of that day and age could see everyday & relate to.
'Cows!' particularly emphasises this in terms of environment from the first illustration. It gives a good sense of atmosphere in terms of the railways in respect to farming. The inconvenience the railway building & operation would have on grazing animals & the inconvenience loose animals can be to the railway are well hidden into the story whilst the reader's mind is drawn to the main plot.
'Cows' also offers an unseen dynamic in bringing relative newcomer and distant colleague Toby to stick up for Edward in his defence. This offers characterisation for Toby, allowing him an opportunity to show off his age, knowledge and experience outside of his own book.
One can't help feeling sorry for Bluebell the cow. This demonstration of maternal instinct would lead her to oppose even the big engines on the viaduct, with society restraining the big engine from doing anything practical. Also there's another reference to a 'cow' going to market in the Railway, a foreshadowing of ends that appear in this book later.
With one story exception, this book is like little other but is the founding of many. Gordon & Henry's scene in 'Cows!' is touched upon again in The Twin Engines . Edward's finding of Trevor will spookily mirror the eerie atmosphere of 'Escape' – so eerily that the TV series added a call-back to the event! Issues of Scrap, Heritage & Obsolescence will wind their through the rest of the series like roots.
I find that one example if reminiscence is more pronounced in one book. 'Edward the Blue Engine' bears great similarity to - no, it practically is – fan favourite book, 'Enterprising Engines'. A story about big engines getting comeuppance, a ridiculed steam engine saving it's younger counterpart & replacement, a steam driven machine awaiting being cut up being saved by the actions a small blue tender engine & a guest cameo. Once again the circularity of the Railway Series is present, the scrapping thread ends up roughly where it started. The biggest difference between these two books is when 'Edward the Blue Engine' was published when no – one cared about withdrawal of steam engines whereas when 'Enterprising Engines' was published - everyone did.
'Bertie's Chase' , however, is firmly a light hearted homage to 'Tank Engine Thomas Again'. At the end of Thomas & Bertie's 'great' race, it is mentioned that they both wanted another race. A hidden message to careful what you wish for to those who remember this, as Bertie finds himself lagging seriously in a race to get Thomas's passengers onto Edward's train.
The focus on Bertie here leads to some stunning visuals not really taken advantage of in the television adaption. The illustrations are fantastic, benefiting from prior mapping of the island of Sodor. This gives a fantastic sense of geography and a tonal shift that lays unseen again until the franchise moves from the model sets into the CGI.
The illustrations also, unfortunately, give us a view at how desperate Bertie's situation is. When we first see him in this story's illustrations, Edward has long since departed – forcing Bertie to double back on himself and travel back on the road he's just raced down! The following illustration is possibly one of the finest of the series. Bertie is at the top of the hill racing downwards, looking down at Edward, who is on a flat, 'straight' and steaming ahead. The model adaption of this loses that desperation as Bertie actually stops. Who stops on a chase? The view wasn't even as good!
Possibly this book's strength all in all, is that it represents the heritage movement for the first time, though probably building up to 'Four Little Engines' in the next volume (of which Edward makes a cameo from the last line of this book). These books, the tentative little footsteps, would later be the foundations upon which the Railway Series later opposition to the Modernisation plan is built.
Now the idea of putting something to better use got a mention in 'Toby the Tram Engine' but that's not really the same as the use in 'Saved from Scrap' or 'Escape'. We don't know Toby's fate in that book (But we do know Henrietta's fate as a hen house.) It is never implicitly stated Toby would be sent to scrap whereas we know Trevor, Donald, Douglas & Oliver, possibly every other engine, would.
This book also the first mention of scrapping. The punishments for the engines to this book & after have been relatively minor – Grounding, Loss of paintwork, Chores. Soon the series would take a turn to the darker side by threatening not only to literally cut short a machines working life but also threatening the very existence of the railway they work on and the very way of life on the Island as we've seen it.
In a more light hearted styling, 'Saved from Scrap' does this theme superbly. The heart-warming sense of community coming together to save Trevor – Trevor talking to Edward, Edward and Driver convincing the vicar, Jem Cole taking time from his life to restore Trevor and probably the scrap yard owner staying open for the vicar. Very reminiscent of the establishment of the heritage movement itself. If I consider one disappointment about the story, you don't see him move as he did in the TV series, a moment of triumph.
One of unusual and equally underrated things I find brilliant about this story, it's very much a wild western theme in the pictures. Little green until the final picture. The vicar & Trevor standing opposed. It's very much about meeting your fate. Then the ride off away in the setting sun.
Speaking of sunset, notice the shadows in the illustrations. This story only appears to have western shadows, literally meaning afternoon but artistically speaking meaning the beginning of the end, the fall to darkness & the end of Trevor's existence. This countered by the pictures of Trevor's own reminiscence and the final illustration at the fete, both much better times for the character are the usual bright sunny days of the earlier books.
This story is actually so iconic, the Top Gear's Captain Slow himself, James May actually refers to it. Not as a mention to Thomas or Wilbert Awdry but to the heritage movement itself.
With all the mentions of scrapping, it gets overlooked that Obsolescence gets an early mention in this book here too. Previously an engine would be withdrawn for bad behaviour or lack of work or failing to perform their duties. Edward, on the other hand, is mentally shunted up in the scrap siding by James for being a bit slow. Something almost forgotten about when reading, as it is firmly buried in the story but think about it again. This is almost a time capsule to the age the book was printed in. Back in the nineteen fifties, this is a reflection of the attitude of many people and railway goers. This is the attitude that led to the Modernisation plan. “Get rid, we don't have patience for you.” It's quite a contrast to the post millennium - current heritage movement where steam traction is held an important leisure industry running at such a relaxing pace and the mainline, where cancellations and delays are commonplace.
'Old Iron' quite rightly proves this patience-less attitude to be the self centred nonsense logic it is by turning the tables and setting up the antagonist for having their well-being to be utterly dependent on the very notion they were originally ridiculing! It reaffirms belief in the old ways, the old system and points out that it still works very well for us and that we should not wish away all we have and treasure on an unspoken promise of something better.
I also love the intrinsic use of humans in the story making it feel very railwayman-like.
Ok, I'm not a very good essay writer, that's the first thing we can draw from this. I've fleshed the bones of my last poll advocacy. Please don't take any disappointment out on the book. It came joint 11th out of 42, by the way – both missing out on the top ten by merely one vote. That kind of counts as top ten, right?
The point I would like to highlight is: I think 'Edward the Blue Engine' is the possibly 'The Best Railway Series Book' is because it to me represents all of what Wilbert was trying to accomplish in his book series. The reflection of railway operations at the time, the community aspect of the railways, the duty and desire to do well by each other and to save us from harm. If anything, it's a macrocosm of life itself, in a form that can absorbed by young minds. Ok, I may have overstretched that last analogy.
If you agree with me on any of these aspects, then I ask you to do one simple thing: Read the book - alone yourself, to a child out loud or have them read it to you. There is no poll this time round but with your hands, heads and hearts, I continue to urge you generous, kind, salt of the earth people to Vote Blue!