Reviewed by SRSengineer
Over the years, the engines on the Island of Sodor have caused a tremendous amount of confusion and delay which, most of the time, could be avoided. The temperamental attitudes of the various train personalities lend to the frustrating situations that cause The Fat Controller’s blood pressure to consistently stay at dangerous levels. Being a person who lost his hair from genetics and stress, I completely understand why Sir Topham Hatt has gone completely bald. Dealing with the random situations day in and out could cause anyone to give up their career as railway superintendent and retire to a relaxing seaside abode. In Troublesome Engines, Awdry explores the self-cantered attitudes of Sodor’s biggest engines and what occurs when they fail to heed the Fat Controller's simple, yet specific, instructions.
We have re-established that Thomas has left the yard and has been working his branch line. This is the part of the Railway Series that really shifts in where the stories are told. First, we have the adventures of Thomas on his branch line and how he grows through his adventures and the new friends he makes. Meanwhile, this book really answers the question: but what about Thomas’ previous position? Who is going to fill that void? We learn quickly that, for the time being, nobody would fill that void. The Fat Controller decides to bear with what situation he already had until he comes up with a permanent fix to the issue. Generally, when someone is promoted, this is a common (though maybe not preferred) managerial technique. What is unclear is how long it has actually been since Thomas has left. This will determine if the engines’ grumbling is completely valid or not.
The first story explores Henry’s apprehensiveness and puts him at odds with a tunnel once again. When the tunnel is blocked and needs to be taken care of, Henry comes to the rescue. What is nice about this story is this is really the first time we see Henry featured in a story since the first book. He continues to have an issue with tunnels and it is nice that the theme progress into this story.
As the men begin to explore the tunnel, they panic and run out to the foreman sitting outside, casually sipping on tea. I am sometimes concerned about the leadership styles of the various people on Sodor. This gentleman brings his workers to a problem, then sits back with Henry and decides to just drink tea. I am going to be using the phrase “oversee and drink tea” for those leaders that just let things happen. The foreman decides to take matters into his own hands (only when the men refused to go back inside). Henry is supposed to push him, but he did not want to clear the blockage. Something big and alive being inside was certainly much worse than a stubborn engine being locked away in the tunnel. I tremendously appreciate how the driver speaks to Henry during this situation. He understands that Henry is terrified and nervous, but it is their job and they must finish it, even though they might be afraid. He speaks to Henry like a frightened child, very much like the parent reading the story to his/her child. This allows for the readers to connect to these characters on a very specific level.
We come to find out that the large thing blocking the tunnel is an elephant that was left behind by the circus that was recently in town. There is something very vivid about a large circus elephant pushing a large engine and two trucks out of a tunnel, and it was perfectly visualized in the illustrations. It is also clear that both the elephant and Henry are scared during the story. Henry was scared prior to entering the tunnel, and in turn frightens the elephant outside the tunnel by letting off steam, causing the elephant to soak poor Henry.
It is hard to say if James and Gordon were truly sympathetic or just being sarcastic towards Henry in the shed that night. Granted, they have been feeling sorry for themselves for quite some time now, so they might be adding this situation to their list of irritations. However, it is also equally possible that they were teasing Henry through sarcastic comments. “Oh you poor engine.” Sincere? Possible. Sarcastic? Also likely, and not out of character either.
In the first story, we lightly touch upon the circus travelling by train, which can be explored in other mediums of books, movies, and more if someone were interested in learning a bit more about them. It isn’t merely a plot point for the story, but also a brief part of history. In the second story, Awdry starts by explaining two very specific and important parts of a railway: the difference and design reasons between tender engines and tank engines, and the proper use of a turntable. These points educate the reader. We now understand why the engines are designed to suit their purpose, and how an engine is able to manoeuvre around the railway in the safest way possible.
Gordon, being pompous, tells Thomas that he is big and has a tender because he is important. Thomas, being Thomas, ignores him and pushes it off like it is nothing (because it is). An engine’s attitude, much like a person’s, completely affects how they accomplish a task. If their attitude is poor, it makes it much more difficult to accomplish the task at hand, which Gordon demonstrates when he cannot use the turntable. Part of the issue is the wind upsetting the process of turning Gordon around, but his attitude plays a significant part in the mess. Because of this, he must pull the train backwards, which then leads to shame and embarrassment. Thomas teases him, because that is how the engine’s interact with each other. James, being smaller than Gordon, has his own trouble with the turntable. The turntable spun much too easily and made James ill.
That evening, Gordon, James, and Henry have a meeting about their day-to-day lives. Up to this point in the series, we see their personalities how that affects how they each handle situations. We now get another layer added on. These three engines are extremely self-entitled and feel as if they are the most important. When they are rude to Edward and then decide to go on strike, the Fat Controller finally makes the decision to get another tank engine to, more or less, replace Thomas in the yard. This is another extremely important character introduction: Percy the Small Engine. Cheeky and eager to work, this green engine adds another great personality to the team. It takes a few books for Thomas and Percy to become the great friends they are today. As all of the engines work together, it is clear that they all really do like each other. In “Percy Runs Away,” Gordon is impressed with, and commends, Percy for starting so quickly to avoid the accident. It is also clear that listening is an important skill that a lot of these engines are missing (as Percy neglects to remember Edward’s safety message). This also, to this point in the series, is probably the most dramatic and exciting moment to happen thus far. Dramatically written, Awdry knows how to build tension for these beloved characters.
It is extremely important to me in a book that there is a cohesive ending, whether on a cliff-hanger or an actual conclusion. Awdry always seems to wrap up his books and stories very nicely. Even if the stories didn’t immediately connect with each other through the main plot, he does well at making the stories have a very nice ending. Troublesome Engines, however, has one of the strongest wrap ups in the entire series and is easily one of my favourite arcs of the series. These stories really establish the hierarchy with The Fat Controller and the engines, and that he will not deal with any nonsense from the engines. It introduces the common business plan that if someone will not do their job, the manager will find someone that will. Introducing this important concept to children at a young age will allow them to work extra hard in every task that they work on. This book also showcases the idea that you might not like everything that you do, but the fact is the work still needs to be done. Connecting this to the children reading the book, then tasks the engines perform could easily relate to the chores they must accomplish at home on a daily basis.
Troublesome Engines still remains relevant to today’s audience and readers. The character developments made within these four stories showcase the importance of working together toward a common goal and putting aside your differences and dislikes to do so. This will always be the first step to be a really useful engine. Following the directions given to you by your leader is extremely important in getting the job done properly and efficiently. The addition of Percy as an engine is imperative to the series. This allows the stories to have a character around the same age and personality type as Thomas, which inclines these two to have adventures together. These stories allow all 6 engines and the Fat Controller to head into the next book with a very strong grasp on their personalities and create new and exciting stories together