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RS Reviews: James & The Diesel Engines - Red Engine Redux (or, The Last Stand of Steamism on Sodor)


James & The Diesel Engines

Reviewed by Tristian


Ah, James. Our gloriously red friend is a study in being “that guy” of the group—loud, proud and obnoxious; someone who always seems to be too much of a jerk to be likable, but when asked why he’s still your friend, you would say, “Well, I dunno.” There’s some redeeming quality to him, but you can never exactly pinpoint what it is. The same could be said of Gordon, but at least he’s part of a class that set the world record for steam locomotive speed, and shows flashes of being a gentle giant who’s willing to lend a hand to the little ones. Gordon is the undisputed alpha engine of the Railway; James has never been more than second banana due to his inferior strength, unearned confidence and unflappable vanity. So it may not be surprising that, after BoCo, Rusty, Daisy and Bear have all become “one of the family” within the Fat Controller’s fleet, that he still holds prejudice against diesels, after being so eager to jump on the bandwagon in believing Diesel’s rumors and exiling Duck.

 

In the Christopher Awdry era, this is how we first see James; listening to Ted Robbins narrate “Crossed Lines”, it’s startling to see how similar James' rhetoric is to that of racist ad campaigns and politicians of the 1950s and 1960s. Not exactly a favorable impression. It was viscerally startling to hear him make such veiled racist comments in the first two stories of this volume, written at a time when that kind of talk was supposed to be “far behind us”, antiquated in its moral attitude.

 

Even if the accidents in this book weren’t James’ fault, they were, if nothing, creative. “Crossed Lines”, in particular, replayed a scenario that I had played out many times with my own HO scale trains—but it was only fun for my case! “Deep Freeze” is a story that seems really easily adaptable for TV, especially now that the humans can come to life in CGI. Following Henry in “Super Rescue”, James becomes, if I remember correctly, the second engine to suffer a failed injector (Mike would become the third in “Teamwork).

 

There is a trend, I’ve noticed, in the way James has been illustrated, even since his Dalby days. When we first meet him in book three, his cab roof is red, something that stood out to me given my TV-series-molded impression of him as having a black one. This remains throughout book no. 3; in Troublesome Engines, the roof is painted black, and remains this way until Eight Famous Engines, where it reverts to red. Throughout the rest of the original 26 volumes, this color seems to change each time he appears, regardless of illustrator (Kenney or Edwardses). Why I didn’t notice this until about twelve years after my first reading of the RWS, I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it’s just another fascinating aspect of his personality; he takes such pride in his paintwork that, bored with his current scheme, he requests the change every year or so to give him either a rough, unfinished look or one that screams sleek and sophisticated. Dashing indeed either way, and in my opinion he looks his best in Spong’s artwork.

 

The resolution of James’ very racist attitude seems sort of weak and rushed. But then, it’s another relatable event for many of us; oftentimes meeting someone you click with from a group that you have prejudices against softens them greatly, or even eliminates them. Again, the “anvillicious” moral trope so common in children’s media is averted in Awdry style, and we see later on that James is even friendly to Pip and Emma rather than indifferent or cold. Though he still retains his love of a gleaming scarlet coat and generally being pretty fly for a “Mogul”, James’ burgeoning character is a lovely change to see, and something the Awdrys do in a class above the rest.

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