Reviewed by Alan B.
Having grown up in America, I hadn't really had much experience with the Railway Series as a child. I had, of course, heard of them, as has anyone who reads the opening titles to Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. So, when my parents bought me “The Complete Collection” by the Rev. W. Awdry for my tenth birthday, I assumed that it was just a collection of stories from the TV series. How very wrong I was. True, there were some stories that had formed the basis for the TV series, but there were quite a number of stories that had never been featured on TV. Four stories in particular caught my eye, and they all began under the heading Mountain Engines.
One of the biggest things that interested me about the Mountain Engines stories was that I had seen these engines before, not on TV, but as small die-cast models from the ERTL series. Culdee, Godred, and Lord Harry were three of my favorite models. They had a cool look. Their design was different than all of the other engines. They were purple. They had two faces. They were so different from any sort of steam engine I'd ever seen. And now, I realized that they were the main focus of one of the Rev. W. Awdry's 26 Railway Series books. These four stories became instant favorites of mine, and I have loved them ever since.
The first story, “Mountain Engine' is very much the same as an earlier story, “Skarloey Remembers” and the later story “Ballast”. It serves as the introduction for the Culdee Fell Railway and its engines. While not the most interesting of stories, I enjoyed this one upon first reading. It informed me of a different sort of railway with a different sort of engines than I had ever known before. Plus, the incident that Culdee recalled during his trial run left me very entertained.
“Bad Look-Out” was my favorite story in the book. I'm not quite sure why, but ever since purchasing his ERTL model, I had always been a fan of Godred. I couldn't really explain why, and to this day, I still have difficulty explaining why I like him. Then again, maybe it's not the character of Godred that I like so much as it is the story about him. I find it very interesting that this is one of the only times that an engine has not been able to redeem himself in some way. In most previous and future stories, if an engine had gotten himself into trouble, they were able to redeem themselves at the end. Godred was not so fortunate. His attitude, as well as his accident, led to him being left at the back of the shed and being used as spares for the other engines. I think that one of the reasons that I like this story most of all is that it has an ending that is open to interpretation. The final line of the story reads: “neither Skarloey nor Rheneas ever mentioned that Culdee had made the story up”. I have wondered for many years what Awdry was referring to when he said that. Did he mean Godred being used as spares for the others? Or, did he mean the entire story of Godred? Either one would make sense, as we never see Godred again in the book. I, personally, prefer to think that the story was simply made up to teach Duncan to behave and watch where he was going. Also, I would later go on to find out that this story was based on the infamous real-life incident on the Snowdon Mountain Railway (the real-life basis for the Culdee Fell Railway) in which, on opening day, their No. 1, L.A.D.A.S., had this exact incident, with tragic results.
“Danger Points”, our third story, I must be honest, has never really been one of my favorites. As a child, I wasn't really thrilled with the chat between Culdee, Ernest, and Wilfred at the beginning of the story, although the names of the three new engines (Lord Harry, Alaric, and Eric) were pretty cool. When we finally meet Lord Harry, the story does start to interest me slightly. We automatically get a good look at Lord Harry's personality and how he thinks of himself and others. Upon reading the end of this story, where Lord Harry has his name taken away and is put at the back of the shed, I started to wonder if this would become a repeat of the story of Godred. However, the fate of Lord Harry was much different than that of Godred.
And, so, we come to our final story “Devil's Back”. Now this, I feel, is one of Awdry's more exciting stories. It involves two of my favorite things: trains and mountains. And while, yes, all four stories in this book involved mountains, this story in particular shows just how dangerous a trek up a mountain can be, especially in bad weather. The story of No. 6's (formerly Lord Harry) redemption had me thrilled. He goes up a very steep mountain in gale-force winds to save an injured climber. Though I intensely disliked him in the previous story, I actually found myself rooting for No. 6, and hoping that he would succeed. This is where I think the Rev. W. Awdry excels. He is very good at writing a character who is completely unlikable, bringing him down to earth, and having him redeem himself (and having the audience enjoy watching him redeem himself). The one thing that I wasn't too thrilled with in this story was the name that No. 6 was given at the end of the story. There's nothing wrong with the name Patrick, but I just didn't feel that it was the right name for No. 6. Though, I don't really know what I would want him to be named instead.
Around 2007, I stumbled onto the Sodor Island Fansite, where I found audio recordings of all four Mountain Engines stories done by a gentleman named Willie Rushton. His narrations made me fall in love with the stories all over again. They are splendid, and if you haven't taken a listen to them as of yet, I highly suggest that you do.
While it may not be Awdry's best book in the series, Mountain Engines has remained one of my favorite books since I first read it nearly ten years ago. I sometimes wish that there had been more stories written about the Culdee Fell Railway by either the Reverend or Christopher Awdry. There are, as the fabulous writers in the ERS have proven, many more stories that could be told about this mountain railway. But then, maybe that's part of what makes this book so special for me, that there was only ever one book written by the Awdry family. And, it is my hope, that other generations of children may find this book as special as I found it for many years to come.