“The Little Engine That Could” Is a Capitalist Nightmare
As a stay-at-home dad I read this children's classic over and over, but I also felt shut out from its definition of success
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I would try in my cheeriest hushed voice to suggest other books and DVDs at the library, but what my son Theo wanted, from about ages three through five, were train stories. “Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong,” I would soon be reading, “along came the little train.” Again.
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper required my greatest test of will to endure. The book is enjoying its 90th anniversary this year, with a coup of a celebrity endorsement for its reissue: in early April, Dolly Parton chose it as the first book in “Goodnight with Dolly,” her YouTube series of reading bedtime stories during the pandemic.
We are supposed to take great inspiration from this story, which began as an American folk tale dating back to the early 20th century. Like John Henry, another industrial-era folk tale, The Little Engine that Could is a story of tremendous, mind-over-matter determination. She is a little engine, not built to haul freight or passengers, but she huffs and puffs “I think I can I think I can I think I can” to pull a train full of dolls and toys over the mountain.
I am happy for the engine, the dolls and toys, and the “good little girls and boys” on the other side of the mountain, but there is a loose end in this story that reveals a cruel theme underneath it all. It begins not with the little blue engine that could, but a little red engine that couldn’t.
She is the one who goes “Chug, chug, chug” in the book’s opening line, taking the toys to the foot of the mountain. “She puffed along happily,” Piper writes,
Then all of a sudden she stopped with a jerk. She simply could not go another inch. She tried and she tried, but her wheels would not turn.
What were all those good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain going to do without the jolly toys to play with and the wholesome food to eat?
“Here comes a shiny new engine,” said the little clown who had jumped out of the train. “Let us ask him to help us.”
The help they seek is not for the little red engine—to see what is wrong, to repair her—but for themselves, to find a new ride over the mountain. “What are all those good little boys and girls going to do” indeed. They have no toys or food? That line always raises my hackles, because of what the story doesn’t also ask: What is the little red engine going to do? The answer is, we don’t know; as soon as she stops working, despite all she did to get everyone to the foot of the mountain, she vanishes from the story. The implication of this is, we shouldn’t care, either. Once her wheels stop, she’s not worth a second thought.
I have been the red engine. I have also been the blue engine, but that doesn’t help with the feeling that what we convey to our kids through anthropomorphized train stories like these is the cruel world of work. If a train is just a train, and the story is about riding it, or how it passes by—The Little Train by Lois Lenski, Train by Donald Crews, Train Coming! by Betty Ren Wright—the readers/listeners/viewers can admire its machinery, strength, and speed. But when we get to know the lives of the engines, because the stories are about “the value of hard work,” we learn about what kind of work is valued, how it is valued, and how their performance of this work—and these values—determines their fates.
For a few examples, Choo Choo by Virginia Lee Burton is about an engine who wants to be seen as “smart,” “fast,” and “beautiful,” but when she tries to achieve this independently and neglects her duties, she becomes “a naughty runaway.” In Tootle by Gertrude Crampton, the spectacled train school teacher “always tells the new locomotives that he will not be angry if they sometimes spill the soup pulling the diner … But they will never, never be good trains unless they get 100 A+ in Staying On the Rails No Matter What.” What happens? Tootle goes off the rails. Thomas (the Tank Engine) & Friends are not friends. They are coworkers, who compete to be seen as “really useful engines” by Sir Topham Hat, fearing the scrap heap if they fail. These stories all have happy endings, of course, but they should begin with the same epigraph from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
The Little Engine that Could rankles me the most because in the days of Theo’s train obsession (he is now twelve), I saw myself in the little red engine in two ways. First, I was a part-time community college teacher who, after six interviews, couldn’t manage to get a full-time job. We had moved from Iowa to Michigan for my wife to start a Ph.D. program, and upon arrival my professional wheels had apparently just stopped working. Secondly, my wife spent long days on campus teaching and taking classes, which also meant that I was the primary caretaker for our kids—our daughter Lena was born when Theo was three—and our family’s homemaker. In many ways this was the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t honored as “work” in the same way. Socially speaking, making a home is being “out of the workforce.”
Homemaking, in other words, is not the little blue engine pulling a train over a mountain, a singular act of physical strength that gets cheers from all the dolls and toys. Homemaking is the little red engine getting all the dolls, toys, and wholesome food organized, out the door, on the train, and to the foot of the mountain in the first place, a feat that takes tremendous emotional and physical resources but is not cheered, or even acknowledged, because we don’t have methods or practices of knowing it. Traditional gender roles, of course, have everything to do with this. “There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter, or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper,” Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. “They remain even at this moment unclassifiable,” where traditionally male achievements are measured, known, and routinely celebrated. All I had to show for my homemaking was that everything was as it should have been: the house was standing, everyone was still alive, and dinner was almost ready.
There is a feminist aspect of The Little Engine that Could not to be overlooked: the mentally and physically strong protagonist is a “she.” However, her heroism is honored when she proves herself to be as strong as any of the male freight and passenger engines. Male strength is what we glorify, whether a man or woman demonstrates it; likewise, whether the mom or dad performs it, homemaking and caretaking is invisible.
If her labor is unknown, why is the little red engine even in The Little Engine that Could? Why not just begin the story with the little blue engine approaching the mountain, facing a challenge, and overcoming it?
There are a couple possibilities. One has to do with the story’s structure. After the little red engine breaks down, the “shiny new engine” that the dolls and toys flag down tells them that he pulls passenger trains only. Then a freight train denies them help, saying, “I am a very important engine indeed”—too important for toys. Third, a rusty old engine says, “I must rest my weary wheels.” These three denials may provide a central meaning of the book. As a review of the book’s 50th anniversary reissue in The New York Times puts it, “The bigger train, the finer train, the older train—for which read ‘grown-ups’—all spurn the dolls’ pleas (too busy, too superior, too tired—how familiar the litany to a child), leaving it up to the little engine, the alter-ego children can identify with.”
But I’m not sure I want my own children to identify with the little blue engine. There’s another reason this first, failed engine might be in the book. The brief story of the red engine provides dramatic tension: if she couldn’t do it, it’s possible that the little blue engine can’t do it either. And what if the blue engine fails? She would not have better terms of employment than her little red counterpart. The stakes are the same. If something happens and she is unable to carry the dolls and toys any further, she’d be abandoned, too. “I think I can I think I can I think I can” is an expression of her determination—and also desperation. She is huffing and puffing for her life.
The most bitter moment in The Little Engine that Could is when they crest the mountaintop. “Hurrah, hurrah,” cheer all the dolls and toys, “the good little boys and girls in the city will be happy because you helped us, kind, Little Blue Engine.” The rewards of her help are not only physical, but also moral: these feelings of kindness, goodness, and happiness are hers to enjoy. The red engine never got a “hurrah, hurrah” for the help she gave, and now, in retrospect, her failure becomes a moral one, too.
After six years in Michigan, my wife neared the end of her Ph.D. program, and we came to realize we wanted to switch roles: she wanted to be the primary caretaker, at least for the foreseeable future, and I (still) wanted a full-time job. It was my turn to be a little blue engine. I sent out sixteen applications across the country, got one interview in Connecticut, and one temporary full-time job. Hurrah—but my contract was for a year (so only one “hurrah”). We decided it was not enough to relocate us all. I would go alone, and to keep applying for jobs on the tenure track.
I had been a most-of-the-time dad and homemaker, and I would become a father who came home for one weekend a month. I also would become a husband who had left his wife with two kids to raise, a house to run, and a dissertation to write; she had to be both a red engine and a blue one. This move was the hardest thing I have ever done, professionally and personally, and the hardest thing I ever want to do.
My two lowest moments were these. The week after I moved to Connecticut, I was driving home from work and got stuck behind a school bus. The bus’s little stop sign blinkered its lights, the doors folded open, and elementary school kids ran out to hug their parents. I missed my family so much I couldn’t bear to watch. For the next stretch of road it was the same scene again and again—oversized, bouncing backpacks, parents taking pictures of their kids—and behind them I wept over the steering wheel.
The second lowest moment came in March. My dad, in Seattle, had a heart attack. He collapsed at the gym. There was a defibrillator on the wall, and a stranger saved his life.
My spring break was the following week. I had to see him, and I also wanted to see my mom and siblings, all of whom were living through the shock and would now begin the recovery. But I had planned to spend the week with my wife and kids, who were, at that point, in family therapy because of my absence; I was anxious—desperate, really—to spend time with them. My dad told me that he understood, that it was fine not to cancel or shorten my trip to Michigan. But he had died—died!—and was saved. How could I not go see him? I still feel guilty about this. In retrospect, I could have just taken time off of work and made two separate trips, but this didn’t even occur to me. I was doing every last thing imaginable, including perfect attendance as a hard-working employee in my do-or-die, I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can job search year.
While in Connecticut I sent out 24 applications, and by the end of the year I did feel like a really useful engine. I had three job offers, two of them on the tenure-track, and hurrah, hurrah, I would pull my family over the mountain to Philadelphia. But, as the blue engine, I also felt like a bad father, husband, and son. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, the railroad had ridden all over me.
I have to amend an earlier statement: the little red engine may have heard the dolls and toys cheer “hurrah, hurrah” at some point in her life. We don’t know. The sound of the cheer may have also been different, something like—in my recollection—the dryer click-clicking as it turned in the basement, little Lena kicking on a baby blanket, and Theo talking to himself as he lined up his Thomas & Friends engines on the curvy wooden track. Our cozy, two-bedroom, hardwood-floored, red-brick duplex had a working fireplace. Those long, house-bound afternoons during a midwestern winter, warmed by flickering coals, are among my favorite memories of being a young family.
Sometimes I could even steal a moment just to watch and listen to it all, partly just amazed that no one and no thing needed my immediate attention. Perhaps there should be a prequel to The Little Engine that Could—call it The Little Engine that Finally Got to Sit Down for a Minute?—that can make this peaceful picture “achievement” enough.