Oliver the Western Engine
Reviewed by James
Some years ago, I saw the question ‘what’s your favourite RWS book?’ floating around online, and, realizing I never thought too deeply about it, was hard-pressed for a definitive answer. With so many great titles, I think I narrowed it down to three of four. Included in this shortlist were ‘Duke the Lost Engine’ and ‘Gordon the High-Speed Engine’, but over time, one book stood out more to me. And, unlike many fans, I don’t have nostalgic connection to it.
I think ‘Oliver the Western Engine’ is the best, and far and away my favourite, RWS book because it’s the funniest, most interesting, and best written of the whole series.
The funny thing is, though named after Oliver, it’s more his and Duck’s book. For those who don’t know, the publishers persuaded the Rev. W. Awdry to change to title from ‘Little Western Engines’ to what it’s known by today; ‘Oliver the Western Engine’. This change made sense; Oliver’s character arc was clearly the focal point of the book, but the original still holds weight for the great balance of old and new characters we see come into play here.
Weirdly, while I like Oliver a lot, he’s not a favourite character of mine. His character arc is great, and we’ll get to that later, but maybe it’s because we saw little of him after this development that didn’t give me enough to make him a favourite of mine, same for the TVS. But every other character here, and I mean everyone, is wonderful. Duck, Donald and Douglas, Toad, Bulgy, Scruffey. These are either characters that were on my favourite list before this volume, or made the list because of this volume.
I also greatly like how this volume allowed us to see new sides to a lot of existing characters. Oliver and Toad had a good backstory in ‘Enterprising Engines’, a book with is arguably deeper and introduces more characters and themes, but they didn’t have a chance to show the reader their characters with so little time on them. Here they do, and they’re excellent.
Oliver’s arc makes perfect sense. His will and determination in ‘Enterprising Engines’ is worth the praise and adoration he gets from the bigger engines, and any small engine in the Sodor universe getting such praise would become cocky. But Oliver’s story is a little deeper with this idea. After such a tense and nerve racking experience, anyone would latch onto any form of praise and admiration, so such words from famous engines would obvious send him down the wrong path. And after this ego-boosting, we get his downfall with a return of the notorious trucks, but this time it’s the ballast trucks – as we see later with one of the antagonists, the worst on the railway. So to see him conquer them and become a leader of how to ‘handle’ trucks bookends his progression nicely.
Looking back, I’m pleased the first and last stories were devoted to Duck, as we see more of character, namely his pride, sense of humour and annoyance to Donald. And we get a lovely case of both playing friendly jokes on each other, in one of the most relaxed and slice-of-life stories from the series.
Not usually the place to mention it, but I’ll bring up the TVS adaptations, of which three came from this book. And two of them are on my all-time favourites – ‘Bulgy’ is my favourite episode of season 3, and ‘Toad Stands By’ one of the best from season 4. This is greatly helped by the great charatcers the book introduced. Bulgy and Scruffey are excellent antagonists; Scruffey allowing more of an insight into the trucks’ mind-sets in having a ringleader, and Bulgy in the ‘road revolution’, with some very harsh and complex dialogue, which I welcome in this point of the series. Both have fine comeuppances, and both, again, away from Oliver – the plan for Scruffey created by Toad, and Bulgy encountered by Duck.
The illustrations are also spectacular. For the longest time, my favourite illustrator was Clive Spong – consistent in his locations, bright enough to catch your eye when young, detailed enough to be aesthetically pleasing for older readers. But I’ve come to enjoy the Edward’s artwork in the later RWS books for the wonderful composition of their angles and insane detailing. Personally, a good lot of their work is so detailed, it’s a little overwhelming; with such dark tones and places where blurs overcome by detailing. But this book is an exception in being bright yet realistic, and hitting the perfect balance.
And the final nail in the coffin is the style of this book – it’s not too dramatic or threatening, but still has enough of an edge to interest all ages, and strikes the perfect balances of themes mixed with the RWS’ signature wit. It has something for everyone and handles everything splendidly. Wonderfully, simple, simply superb, and in my mind some of the Reverend’s best work.