The Twin Engines
Reviewed by Christopher
Out of all the books in the Railway Series, choosing just one favourite is never easy. The way Wilbert Awdry manages to blend original storytelling within a working railway - despite Sodor being fictional, it is still as close to real life as made possible - has always fascinated me. How his stories hold good morals for children without being preachy while, at the same time, keeping the interest of the parents reading them, many who may happen to be huge railway buffs or retired railway workers themselves. The fact that he also based his stories from real-life railway incidents, even as the narration slowly matured, has been one of my main inspirations to one day follow in his steps as a writer myself.
But of the more complex stories the Good Reverend has penned in the entire Railway Series, I consider The Twin Engines as an excellent example. When the Fat Controller orders a new goods engine for his railway, he winds up with two for the price of one! Donald and Douglas arrive from Scotland, and are alike as two peas. No one can tell which is the right engine as they had both "lost" their numbers, so the Fat Controller has to decide which to keep. However, his decision becomes more difficult as the Twins prove to be as good as the other...both as hard workers and subject to folly, from misplacing important coaches to smashing into a signal-box!
It's more than just that, however. The date this book was published, 1960, is around the time where steam engines were being scrapped as part of the Modernisation Plan for British Railways; and while it is never mentioned, it acts as an undertone for the purpose and goal of the titular characters. The Twins themselves realise that if one stays then the other risks being scrapped if sent home - and as the stories progress, their situation becomes more despairing and uncertain as they go to greater lengths to stay together and prove their worth, especially when a Spiteful Brake van threatens to intervene on their chances...
It's just one side of Donald and Douglas that makes them both memorable characters - containing true "brotherly love" for one another, as well as being strong-minded against others who dare to cheek them, courageous throughout to get their work done, and even mischievous - as most twins are - when joking around with the other engines. In fact, it was through Donald and Douglas that my fascination of Scottish folk in general has grown, right down to their challenging dialect! How they seem to represent a positive image for Scotland in all, in terms of these well-rounded characteristics, which are brought out nicely to the storyline befitting of them.
Other characters are also brought in to play their part - all who eventually become fond of the Twins and band together to ensure they both get to stay on Sodor. Up to nine or so characters in four short stories, compared to a few of the earlier books where it focused on just the lead character alone. Bringing in more players to the Twins' story adds to Awdry's development as a writer, as he bounces personalities off one another and uses these, along with his real-life railway mishaps, to move the main story along seamlessly from one from the other. It indeed makes them complex, but also much more fascinating.
When some of these stories were adapted for Series 2 of the TV Series, it was the third tale, "Break Van", that marked Donald and Douglas' television debut. And to this day, I am still half-hearted at how rushed it seemed compared to what I recall from the book, one that I can quote from heart. It can be argued that The Missing Coach, with little action going on, may have been too difficult for younger viewers to understand - in terms of a tender swap by Donald's crew to cover up Douglas' mistake - but it showed the true urgency the engines and their crews were under in order to secure their own safety. Something that peaks the interest of the villainous Brake Van, who tries to make their lives difficult - resulting in his to be cut short when Douglas accidentally flattens him. All of which leads up to an extremely satisfying ending come "The Deputation" (with much difficulty in pronouncing the word!).
But with drama comes humour, another trait that had made Awdry's work so memorable today. Next to the characters themselves, Awdry manages to insert subtle jokes that only the parents would understand. Example: the Scottish Twins' numbers are 57646 and 57647 respectively. But their locomotive class, 812, only reached as far as 57645! Throw in a reference to the Twins' deep-toned whistles - "Tugboat Annie!" to quote Gordon - and it'll raise a smile to anyone who recalls that 1950's television show. Clearly Awdry understood both his "audiences" carefully, and ensured that everyone is kept satisfied.
And next to the stories are the illustrations. I had always admired John Kenney's work. Despite drawing for a small number of books, his interpretations of the engines and their surroundings felt more "real" than Dalby's previous works, and seem to set an example for Gunvor and Peter Edwards and Clive Spong later on down the line. The engines are well-detailed and glossy, yet their faces are expressive and fun, a perfect combination to draw children in with awe and interest - case in point with the book cover, which shows Donald and Douglas with matching grins as the Fat Controller puzzles over which is which. As with Awdry, Kenney has been another inspiration whenever I feel the urge to draw railway-based artwork, to ensure they're kept as detailed yet impressive as his.
To sum up, The Twin Engines is far and beyond a simple children's book. It maintains intelligence and realism, yet delivers subtle morals through strong storytelling, with there being a new twist in the tale following each chapter to make you want to read on. Although it would be unfair to consider this "the" best RWS book ever penned - it is merely an example of Awdry's work with others that follow in the same suit - to me it has a firm place in my heart in terms of memorable characters, all who play an important role, and a storyline that manages to entertain, educate and engage, in that order exactly.