New Little Engine
Reviewed by RailFanBrony
It’s safe to say that during the Railway Series’ run, perhaps the most developed of the four Sudrian railways was the Skarloey. In their 1955 debut (Four Little Engines) we are introduced to Skarloey, Sir Handel and Peter Sam, and we get an idea on what their characters are like. Four years later (The Little Old Engine), Skarloey comes home after his overhaul and he (and the audience) are introduced to Rusty and Duncan. Gallant Old Engine finally gives us some insight to Rheneas’ character, and how he saved the Skarloey Railway from closure. Not only that, we see some development for Peter Sam, Sir Handel, and Duncan, whether physical or (in Duncan’s case) in personality.
Then comes Very Old Engines, ten years after the first Skarloey-centric book and the twentieth anniversary of the books overall, where we learn about Skarloey and Rheneas’ youth when the line first opened back in the 19th century. In the last story of said book, Peter Sam thinks a Duke will be coming, but Duck confuses it for a Great Western Duke, and Peter Sam thinks that the Duke’s been scrapped. Happily though, five years later, in Duke the Lost Engine, we learn about Peter Sam and Sir Handel’s youth when they were known as Stuart and Falcon, respectively, and who the “Duke” character was according to Peter Sam.
Fifteen years later, Christopher Awdry has taken over the Railway Series from his father, and his first Skarloey-centric book was Great Little Engines – Duke’s overhaul is finally complete so Sir Handel can go to the Talyllyn Railway in Wales to substitute for Skarloey’s twin. Back on the Skarloey, Peter Sam and Duncan have little adventures of their own and Sir Handel has a story of his own, resulting in him donning an eyepatch after a run in with a tree!
And now, in 1996, we get New Little Engine. Compared to the previous six books, how does it stack up?
It’s… a bit disappointing, to say the least, but does that make it bad? Not really, as there are some innovative ideas behind it.
The first story, Speedkiller, mentions the Skarloey Railway having a second diesel – their #9 engine – named Fred, who claimed to be ill (or so he says, as Rusty cynically states). Sadly, we don’t see Fred, much less an insight to his personality, but you can get an idea on what he looks like by looking at the Talyllyn’s own #9, Alf, or (if you’re lucky to find a copy) by reading Sodor: Reading Between the Lines. As for the rest of the story, the weedkiller makes the rails slippery, resulting in Rheneas running late. Here, it feels like the “Gallant Old Engine” story, only Rheneas wasn’t crippled and it was just another holiday season for the Skarloey. And, for some reason, Rheneas is a 0-4-2 because… your guess is as good as mine.
The next story, Sir Handel’s Plan, involves the titular engine getting jealous over Peter Sam going to Wales… why? Sir Handel had already been to Wales, so why would he be jealous of Peter Sam going there? You’d probably expect for him to be a bit more empathetic at this point, especially given Duke’s return to service. So, Sir Handel damages himself on purpose and consequently, he’s left in the back of the shed, fearing he may never run again, so the moment the Thin Controller walks into the shed, Sir Handel owns up for his behavior, and he’s given new firebars, but never knows that they’d only just come in this morning. The story mentions the Skarloey’s #7 being built, and it’s basically all the subtleness we have leading into the main story (which we’ll cover in a bit). The moral is a good one to learn, one Sir Handel should know by now, but I digress.
Story number three, Dirty Water, tells a story about Peter Sam’s visit to the Talyllyn Railway and it explains about how some railways use treatment to purify their water. Poor Peter Sam; whenever the Skarloey Railway and its engines are focused on, he always gets the short end of the stick. Leaving the Refreshment Lady behind, having his funnel damaged at the incline, losing it later to be (temporarily) replaced by a drainpipe, making a simple mix-up over the Duke, being humiliated by said engine, and getting caught in brambles. Now, he’s covered in dirty water. We also got to see some human interaction with Kathy and Lizzie, and they’re cute and funny in terms of character. They’re this generation’s Nancy. For some reason, the third story in the books is usually the best, and this is one of them. Though it looks like Peter Sam never left home at all in the fourth illustration…!
After three unrelated stories, we finally get to I Name This Engine. It’s the story named for this book, and it’s… anti-climactic. We don’t get to see what Ivo Hugh’s personality is like, and all we know thus far is that he’s friends with Skarloey, Rheneas and Peter Sam. (And people say Bertram did nothing in Toby’s Discovery.) With the earlier Jock the New Engine, the first two stories had given some build up to Jock’s entry into service, and the last two focus on Jock himself, as well as his rivalry with Mike. As for I Name This Engine? It’s very much the weakest overall in New Little Engine. Mr. Hugh did deserve to have an engine named for him given his services to the Skarloey Railway, but it’s a shame the engine named for him felt like a plot device.
Overall, it sounds like I’ve been bashing the book, but I’m not. It has some clever ideas, but at times, the execution feels rather half-baked and the new characters Fred and Ivo Hugh barely had any focus on them. I hear that kids rejected Barry’s book because they didn’t want any new characters; how can they not want new characters when in this book, there were two who barely had any focus as it was? I get that Thomas is the lead character of the franchise, but it wasn’t him alone who made the series great; it was the stories and situations the characters got into. I look back on what Wilbert Awdry said in the 1995 Thomas documentary:
“They're so obsessed with the popularity of Thomas, that they have - what I can only call - "crane-shunted" Thomas to all sorts of unlikely places, in order to get him into - or force him into - a particular story, whether the story was written with Thomas in mind or not.”
That statement is true now as it was back then. There’s a reason the last two books of the series have a heavy emphasis on Thomas in the title, as well as the stories.
Is there a future for Ivo Hugh? I hope so. Given that Mike, Bert, and Rex had appeared in Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure and Season 20, and Flying Scotsman in The Great Race, there’s always a chance for Ivo Hugh to be next in line, and given that he is currently a blank slate, Andrew Brenner and his team could give him any personality they like. (Same thing with Barry the Rescue Engine and the unnamed Austerity engine.) I mean, they characterized the Coffee Pots through Glynn in The Adventure Begins and later season 20, so who’s to say Ivo Hugh can’t appear in CGI?
That being said, you may have to deal with two #7s on the Skarloey if Freddie were ever to return. Still, one can dream, right?
Overall, I wouldn’t really call New Little Engine my most favorite book (that goes to Tank Engine Thomas Again, for the record), but it is one of my favorites when it comes to being innovative. Giving the Skarloey a #7 is a great idea to fill in the gaps (if Duke is #8, of course!) and it would be nice to know how Christopher would’ve tackled Ivo if he had the chance to write more books, but of course, we have the Extended Railway Series and other fan-series like Sodor: The Modern Years to fill that gap. It’s always fun to see fans speculate on what the obscure characters are like in terms of character! A bit like the Brony fandom, I suppose.