The Little Old Engine
Reviewed by ThomasFan88
Have you ever had that situation where your just not good enough? Where, no matter what you do, it seems that you just can’t get ahead of the game and that the world is looking down on you? Have you ever felt as if you’re more of a nuisance then a help? Then, have you ever found your way back to the top? Into a position where you’re now wiser, stronger and more humble than beforehand? If you have, then you’ve been in the exact same position as Skarloey is at the beginning of The Little Old Engine. Skarloey, an old engine who just barely help save his railway from closing down, taken two younger engines who’s railway had just closed under his wing and brought a passenger train home on one front spring before being sent away to be mended like his old friend Rheneas finally returns and celebrates his ninety-fifth birthday on his home railway. While this was most definitely not the end of Skarloey’s struggles or even his story arc, it was a good conclusion to his second bout of struggles recorded in the Reverend’s books. It took strength and perseverance, not to mention a cattle truck full of patience, but now he was back at the top, and at the point where this book begins.
While it’s hard to pinpoint any common arc in the book other than that the stories flow into each other, it is all centred around Skarloey returning home, but even that doesn’t fully explain it. Back from a long journey, Skarloey returns and, like many of us, he treasures the feeling of coming home. Like a hero back from vanquishing the dragon, smiling at the sight of his hometown, the great warrior returns to his sheds with a greater experience behind him, although, little did he know that his life had changed to the point where he could never go back. Thus, this is where I believe the story’s true colours take form. It’s not about a hero coming home or an engine returning from the works. It’s a story about how someone who’s been gone away for a very long time comes home to a completely new world and has to settle himself back into it.
If you’ve ever been away on a long journey or vacation, you know exactly what it means to come back home and to not recognize the world around you. Often, a lot happens while we’re gone in ways often more surprising than not. This is evident in Peter Sam’s accident and the developments before and after it. A new diesel has arrived on the railway to take care of the line, new coaches have been brought in to help with the surplus of passengers who are now travelling the line and Peter Sam has had a run in with a line of runaway slate trucks. Sir Handel had slipped from his good streak after Skarloey left and pretended to be sick, sending his naive friend to do his work instead and, consequently, into danger due to how he’s treated the trucks in the past. Needless to say, Peter Sam became the victim of a plot to get revenge on his truck-abusing friend. Often, we’re thrown into situations where we experience the consequences of others people’s actions. Sometimes they’re trivial and we overlook it as quickly as we notice it, while others affect us to our very inner beings. This is the situation that Peter Sam is in, and it is evident through the pictures that he is deeply shocked and shaken. Sir Handel is obviously upset about what happen, though it’s not clear if he understands that it was his actions that caused this situation. However it is, Peter Sam shows true character in being able to forgive his friend after sending him into such a terrible situation, albeit unknowingly, before becoming shed-ridden for a while. Even though he is eager to get back to work and to life, like many are, he needs to rest. Fortunately for him, he had a surprise coming.
On his last day of resting, Skarloey finally arrives home. How I wish that I could’ve been there to see the look on Peter Sam’s face upon seeing him, if it was real. Here he is with his dear old friend and mentor, the one who shares the railway’s namesake, who’s returned home from his long journey, surprised by his returned and overjoyed at seeing him again. It truly would’ve been a beautiful moment. The two catch up like old friends do as Skarloey tries to process all of the changes made to the line while he’s been gone. Often, though, we don’t get a chance to take in all the changes and make sense of them before we’re thrown back into the action and are expect just to catch up along the way. That is exactly what happens as word of Duncan, the newest arrival to the line who was brought in to help with Peter Sam’s workload, has gotten himself stuck in a tunnel up the line and it’s Skarloey who’s sent to his rescue. The little engine shows his courage and jumps at the chance to get back in the action and heads off to save the engine, unknowing of exactly what he’s going to find.
Duncan, now, is a very interesting character and quite a sour thumb on the little line. If you excuse the grumpy Sir Handel, Duncan is really the only antagonistic engine on the entire railway. He’s grumpy, he’s rude, he’s stubborn, full of hot air and loves to rock and roll. It’s no surprise, then, that he would end up in the situation he’s in when the pride of the line (other than Rheneas) returns home. It’s instantly a clash of personalities as the calm, mature, collected Skarloey meets the rambunctious, rude and grumpy Duncan. Of course, Skarloey, being the wise engine he is, just quietly takes the disgraced engine home, leaving a stronger impact on the new engine than any words could. It’s one of those traits that is so lovable about Skarloey. The fact that he faces everything with a set face and ready to brave it all, even dealing with the less agreeable bumpy engine. He knows that those who disobey get their reprimanding, so he just lets it unfold instead of reprimanding the engine himself. In that, I believe he was unconsciously teaching Duncan, and the readers, a lesson on be the bigger engine, and it’s something that has affected me to this day.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Duncan, as he instantly reverts to his grouchy, stubborn ways, even after a reprimanding from the Thin Controller. Here, we split from Skarloey’s story of returning and fitting back in and dive into the life of Duncan. He’s new to the line, stuck in his ways, and out of place. In that way, he is relatable as we’ve all been out of our comfort zone and feel out of place. Often, it brings up resentful feelings. Sadly, he takes these feelings out on Rusty, the poor diesel brought in to fix the rails while Skarloey was gone. Of course, this is encouraged by James, who’s only experience with diesels was from when Diesel visited the yard the book prior. This leads to a downhill spiral that typically happens to those who are ignorant of others and very hard headed as he ignores Rusty’s warning about the bad bit of line.
Now, admittedly, we’ve all been in this situation. We think we’re better than everyone else and, in are stubbornness, we ignore warnings and get ourselves into scrapes. We’ve all done it, and we all grow from it. We all make our mistakes, but a truly great person is that who learns from them. Fortunately and unfortunately, this is where Duncan’s story goes as he derails himself on the bad bit of line as he gaily rocks and rolls. It’s only when Rusty and Mr. Hugh the railway foreman show up that he’s rescued and sent back on his way. Of course, like all people, a situation like this left a mark on the rude engine and that night he made amends with Rusty, with hopeful signs of being a wiser engine, although we all know how he really turned out.
Thus, with that solved, some cameramen arrive to film the line as part of a documentary. Unfortunately, Peter Sam overhears them talking about what pictures they’ll take and fears that they are going to be sold. While it may sound silly, I’ve found that, when you mishear something, you do tend to jump to the worst conclusion and for an engine, who’s old line was shut down and sold off, to overhear people talking about “taking” things, I imagine it can be very unsettling. Never the less, all is put to right and the filming day goes by splendidly, even ending with a pleasant surprise as Skarloey reveals to the many viewers on TV and to those around him that he has a twin in Talyllyn. I remember reading that part of the book and being surprised myself. Of course, I am an American, so I wasn’t that affiliated with British Railways at the time. Still, the surprise of there being a real Skarloey is still one of the most pleasant things I’ve ever read and real staples it as one of my favourite books.
As the book drawls to a close with Skarloey wishing others to send “Dry rails and good running”, you see just how far the line, and the reader, has come form it’s start. From the nasty accident with the slate trucks to Skarloey’s glorious return, Duncan’s and Rusty’s shenanigans to the railway documentary, each and every character currently on the line has gone through trials and tribulations or even just simple learning curves. Peter Sam has gone through an accident that’ll affect him for years to come, Sir Handel and Duncan have, more or less, learned that their actions and ignorance have consequences that affect both them and those around them, Rusty has fitted himself onto the line and Skarloey back into the society that has changed so much. Really, it’s these character arcs and how they all play off each other that makes this one of my most favourite books. It really is a good story about just living life. Accidents h happen, life changes, you just have to keep fighting and make it through, because there’s always a brighter side to the darkness, a silver lining on every cloud. You just have to keep living.
If I had to say one thing that really makes the book for me, it’s the moral that, no matter what life throws at you or expects you to cope with, as long as you remain strong and keep marching on while helping others along the way, you will find a brighter horizon. It’s a beautiful statement reinstated in, if not all then, nearly every book about this fabled narrow gauge railway, and it creates a beautiful picture every time. It’s a timeless tale that I hold dear to my heart.