Thomas & The Fat Controller's Engines
Reviewed by Bulker
Over the years, as I slowly made my way through Christopher Awdry's books, this one always stood out as a particular delight to read. It wasn't the first one I read, nor the last, I guess I read it at a time when one couldn't be too picky over which book to choose, ie, if I saw a book available, and had the means to buy it, I would snap it up. I found this book at the age of 15, way back in 2000, at a heritage railway shop. It was available along with several other Christopher Awdry books, and because I was unaware of the situation at the Railway Series at the time, I decided to buy just one book, and this was the one I chose, I'm not sure what stood out about it, but it ended up being amongst the last Railway Series books I would be reading for a good few years, and I think I therefore made a good choice.
I've always been particularly fond of this volume, and I can't altogether say why! Perhaps it's simply because I bought it at a time of my life that I remember fondly, or maybe it is simply the quality of the stories. I certainly feel there is a quality about these unlike any other he wrote. They are simple, yes, but that's part of the beauty of them. They are not overly complicated, and do not seem to follow the same pattern as many of the author's earlier tales.. Indeed, some of the stories almost remind me of the earliest ones in the series, a supposed time of simplicity and innocence on Sodor, and this book seems to show that.
In hindsight, maybe this isn't the best, other books which I read years later, including the lesser know Jock the New Engine and Great Little Engines, certainly contend for the title. I was never particularly excited about reading those two volumes, but was pleasantly surprised, and impressed when I read them for the first time. Still, Book 39 has a lot going for it, and shows many strengths as well. The idea for the book was of course to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series, certainly a new idea for the series, and I must say, Christopher Awdry often had interesting and original ideas for books. So this is introduced at the beginning, with a typical conversation in the big shed, where all the main characters are discussing and arguing about what a Jubilee is, when the Fat Controller announces his plan to celebrate the milestone. This is a marvellous scene, which includes as many of the main characters as possible and has to be one of the only ones where it is directly acknowledged that the series is real. So important is this though, that the author spends \a few pages on it, concluding with the announcement that Pip and Emma, the high-speed train who Christopher introduced in an earlier volume, would be returning to bring the royal train. After this, the rest of the story can be devoted to something different, and Gordon puffs away.
As said earlier, there is a welcome sense of simplicity throughout much of this book, and I think the first story is a good example of this. It was always my favourite in the book, and in many ways, it reminds me of the earlier story 'James and the Bootlace'. It is Gordon who is puffing along with the express, when all of a sudden, for reasons unknown, (to Gordon's crew at least), he comes to a halt. The reader however was treated to a splendid illustration of some crows crossing in front of his train, and shortly after it becomes obvious that the crows are the culprit. There is an opportunity here to include a bit of railway history, when the fireman mentions that he read of a similar incident on the Great Western Railway in 1915. Gordon sets off again shortly after, but is subject to some banter from the others!
This book isn't set on any one particular area of the railway, just a generic book set across the Fat Controller's railway, which brings all the engines together at the end. An old favourite, Edward, who has barely appeared in Christopher' Awdry's books is at last the star of this story. As for the characters chosen for the first three stories, I sometimes feel it is no accident that it was three characters in particular who featured:
As it was the 50th anniversary volume, Edward was obviously an appropriate engine, being as he was, the very first character in the series. It was also fair that one of the other two original characters from the first book should be a major player, and thus Gordon took the role, whilst Henry opened the book. And whatever you may think of Thomas and his frequent appearances, it wouldn't seem right leaving him out of this one. Meanwhile most of the others get at least a small look in, with Duck and the Scottish twins having small roles, and cameos for BoCo and Daisy.
Edward's story takes us along his branch line, in which he loses a wheel near Suddery, incidentally a location I don't think we've ever seen before. His wheel rolls off into an adjacent field of cabbages, though rather unfortunately, illustrator Clive Spong chose not to show this. The author describes this scene almost in a climatic way, with the crew examining Edward to see what the problem was, ending with the surprise discovery that his wheel is no longer there. Meanwhile, the Fat Controller, has a rather amusing conversation with a farmer over the telephone, who has found an engine's wheel in his cabbages, and the climax to this story I suppose is a sarcastic remark from the farmer (via the Fat Controller) to Edward, about how best to pick cabbages!
The third story returns to Thomas' line, and the problem of burrowing rabbits under embankments, and thus weakening of the line. It's probably the most technical of the stories, but it is dealt with in such a way that it mostly holds it interest, and even this one feels a little different to the usual Thomas related story, but is nonetheless a classic Thomas and Percy story, high-lighting their friendship, and showing how they help each other keep the branch line running.
And so finally, we return to the event that was mentioned at the start of the book, and though no details have been given away, the plans gradually emerge as the story progresses. However, the story begins with, of all things, a spider. Spiders are generally un-popular creatures, but this one comes in to the story as a creature who made a web the previous autumn, which would go on to cause much trouble several months later. I'm kind of reminded about Charlotte's Web in this scene, the spider was portrayed as an innocent by stander, who was merely doing her job of, well, being a spider.
“She knew nothing about the plans for the Golden Jubilee celebration.”
This line kind of says it all really. Anyway, Edward has returned, and it is revealed that there will be a red carpet, bringing memories of the Queen's visit, and speculation of another royal visitor.
On the day itself, Pip and Emma have arrived with the special train, while the engines gather at the Big Station. But just as everything seems to be working correctly, the signals fail, at the worst possible time, causing some potential embarrassment, and no doubt loads of panic for the Fat Controller, shortly before a royal train is due. Turns out it was caused by the old spider's web, which blew in between two electrical contacts. The engines are flagged through, which takes time, but all arrive in the end, in spite of Henry and Gordon's constant criticizing of the whole event! At last however, the Prince of Wales steps off the train (referred to in the book as the Royal Personage), and tells the Fat Controller that his engines are a credit to him, and there, the book ends.
Though it was closed a little suddenly for my liking (as with most Christopher Awdry books), the gathering of as many engines as possible was a delight, and not to be missed. One cannot fail to notice the many similarities between this book and the most recent offering in 2011, and it's not hard to see why this format was favoured. All those engines at once? Who can resist?! Plus, despite the many different characters now in the series, the principal characters in this book still remain the most popular, though, as with the recent one, it's good to see other less used characters featured. One final point – I always felt this was Clive Spong's best work. The rural scenes in the first story definitely stand out for me, as do those in 'Edward and the Cabbages'. The quality of his work only improved as the years went by I think, and it was during this period where he peaked, but it hasn't declined yet! So to conclude, the original ideas in this book, combined with simplicity, charm, use of characters, humour and outstanding art work, and admittedly, maybe some sentimentality, I am happy to nominate this as Christopher Awdry's best book.