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RS Reviews: Four Little Engines - Branching Out

Four Little Engines

Reviewed by WinterTorrents

For his tenth book in as many years, The Reverend W Awdry seems to have decided that ten was a good number to branch out on. Rather than chronicle further adventures of the (then) seven engines running under the aegis of the Fat Controller, he writes an outpouring of his affection for the Talyllyn Railway in Wales which four years previously had become the first preserved railway in the world and on which the Reverend and his family served as volunteers for many years.


Using Edward's dispatch to the Works for repairs at the end of the previous book (Edward the Blue Engine) as a tail-in, he introduces Crovan's Gate station (though not openly named as such until later) as not only Sir Topham's repairs depot but also the interchange for a small narrow gauge line.


The title reflects the four-strong fleet of locomotives on the Talyllyn Railway and their fictional equivalents here, though it is somewhat ironic in that one of them is sent away to be mended on the second page and even then only as reminisced by Skarloey the following day.


The Fat Controller's engines are by no means absent though – indeed every story gives one of them opportunity either to meet their match or to show a side of themselves not previously seen.


Firstly, Edward gets to meet an even older engine and listen to his story. Skarloey Remembers serves to introduce the Skarloey Railway through the reminiscence of its identically named No 1. The warm cosy medium of the old engine looking back on happy days reflects the kind of stories Wilbert must have heard from Talyllyn staff on his annual visits there and is so much more effective than if he had chosen to write it in the third person.


Then in Sir Handel, the title character of that story, who causes trouble from the word go, leaves Gordon speechless by outboasting him. He's rude to coaches in a way that would make even James in his early appearances blush This story also introduces the character to whom the Skarloey engines and their crews are directly answerable – what else could Wilbert call him but The Thin Controller and quite a contrast he is too. Where Sir Topham Hatt is “strict but kind-hearted” (as the author had described him on the back cover of Henry the Green Engine), the Thin Controller (a Mr Peter Sam from whom the fourth little engine takes his name) is a vindictive swine. Sir Handel and Peter Sam take turns pulling the trains just as Skarloey and Rheneas did before them but for unknown reasons, the Thin Controller makes Sir Handel go to work when it's Peter Sam's turn. This causes Sir Handel to derail himself deliberately in a fit of rage, returning home to be punished by an unrepentant Thin Controller. He shows a similar heartlessness in a later story (Bad Look-Out in Mountain Engines) where he appears to scapegoat Duncan when virtually derailed by his coaches.


But the real heart-charmer of these new characters is Peter Sam. His wide-eyed innocence similar to that of Percy and he gets into similar confusions though he is nowhere near as careless or thoughtless as the 'green caterpillar' could be at times. Henry makes a key appearance in Peter Sam and the Refreshment Lady – no longer afraid of rain, bricked up helpless in a tunnel or suffering from a bad shape and faulty boiler, here he asserts himself and shows a degree of conceit he isn't often seen to sink to, his mock threat to leave Peter Sam's passengers behind causing him to leave one of his most important passengers stranded. The story gains extra charm when you consider that it was based on a real incident on the Talyllyn where Wilbert Awdry himself, in his capacity as a volunteer guard, blew his whistle too soon and managed to leave a real life refreshment lady behind.


Old Faithful closes the volume with a redeemed Sir Handel being put out of action by the unforgiving coaches (the same five always used) and Skarloey volunteering to take the train, Peter Sam being repaired at the time. Skarloey suffers a serious breakdown on a steep slope but swears to finish the journey even at great pains to stay on the track. James is the token Fat Controller's engine in this story but says nothing and is not seen in the picture. James may be conceited but he is not heartless in the face of an engine in pain. Again, a familiar character appearing in contrast to his usual stereotype.


By the time the story is over, the Owner (from whom Sir Handel takes his name) sends Skarloey, who thought he was doomed to be written off and stay in the shed forever (rather like Edward in the very first story) off to be mended. Unlike the other incidents in this book this was not a reflection of something that had already happened. Ultimately, however, life imitated art and Talyllyn, Skarloey's real life equivalent also received repairs and returned to active service, something Wilbert felt proud to have perhaps contributed towards by means of this charming little book.


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