Watty Piper’s Mechanical Dystopia: Looking Back At “The Little Engine That Could”

Watty Piper’s Mechanical Dystopia: Looking Back At “The Little Engine That Could” July 11, 2017


There are stories that only improve with age.

And then there’s Watty Piper’s 1930 fable, The Little Engine that Could.  

I used to love that story when I was a little girl. Somehow I haven’t read it to Rosie yet. I was surprised when a friend mentioned that he found the whole story Calvinistic and grim. I went to read it; fortunately, the whole thing is  available online.  I found that my friend was not only correct, but understating the case. This story is downright chilling.

It all starts innocently enough:

Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train for she had such a happy load to carry. Her cars were full of good things for boys and girls.

The train, in fact, is carrying a menagerie of sentient stuffed animals, several different kinds of sentient doll, and “the gayest little toy clown you ever saw.” I don’t know, Watty.  I’ve known a lot of gay clowns in my day. There are also picture puzzles, books, model airplanes and jackknives.

And not only that; there are also “all sorts of good things for boys and girls to eat.” And what does Watty Piper mean by “all sorts of good things to eat?” Prepare to salivate:

…big golden oranges, red-cheeked apples, bottles of creamy milk for their breakfasts, fresh spinach for their dinners, peppermint drops, and lollypops for after-meal treats. The train was carrying all this to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain.

That’s right. The good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain are going to get raw spinach, milk, and a narrow selection of cheap fruits for their meals. For dessert, a mint. I have a feeling Watty Piper was Oliver Cromwell’s pen name. And remember, these delicious viands are specifically for the good little boys and girls, as are the toys, knives and books. Only model children get fruit, vegetables, milk and mints. I suppose the children who have been naughty are going to have stale bread and pemmican until they die of scurvy, and they won’t be allowed to read books to alleviate their suffering. I can almost get behind not allowing them to play with knives, if they’re truly bad children, but no one seems to have considered the fact that better nourished and educated children usually have more self-control in the first place. Perhaps this is all part of a dystopian eugenic plan to make sure that only compliant citizens make it to adulthood, but I think it’s just horrible parenting.

In any case, here comes the happy little engine with a clown who struggles with same-sex-attraction and a bunch of bland food. And we all know what happens next: the train stops dead at the foot of a mountain.

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?

Well, how big is this mountain? Couldn’t the engineer just walk over the mountain and explain what happened? Then the parents, aided by the good little boys and girls themselves, could get in their cars or Conestoga wagons or whatever mountain villagers had in 1930, and come back over the mountain to grab all the merchandise before it rained. The bad little boys and girls would probably set the village on fire while they were gone, which would serve everyone right, but at least they’d get their spinach and knives.

Or, more urgently, the engineer could walk back to the station and inform somebody about the breakdown before another train comes by and rear-ends it. After an horrendous accident had been averted, the merchant who sold this big order of toys and cheap food to the remote mountain village could make other shipping arrangements. This is 1930, so presumably the mountaineers all pooled their scant funds for an order from Sears and Roebuck. Sears and Roebuck is a reliable company. Rural folks depended on Sears and Roebuck. Surely they would have made arrangements for a replacement or refund.

There is an engineer, right?

Apparently there isn’t, because the gayest clown you ever saw has to take charge.

“Here comes a shiny new engine,” said the little clown who had jumped out of the train. “Let us ask him to help us.”

Where? Is the shiny new engine barreling down the same track that the train is stalled on? If so, you’re in for a bloody crash. If not, how can he help? He’d have to go all the way back to the station, get on the turntable, and drive back on the other track, but then he’d be behind the train instead of in front.

In any case, here comes the train.

“Please, shiny new engine, do carry our train over the mountain. Our engine has broken down, and the boys and girls on the other side will have no toys to play with or wholesome food to eat unless you help us.”

I do enjoy how the first item on the toys’ list of calamities is the children’s lack of playthings. Only secondary is the fact that there’s nothing healthful to eat. And no one even thinks of the fact that if that train remains where it is, there will inevitably be a fiery accident.

But the shiny new engine puffed, “I pull you? I am a passenger engine. I have just pulled a fine big train over the mountain, with more cars than you ever dreamed of. My train has sleeping cars, with comfortable berths; a dining car where waiters bring whatever hungry people want to eat; and parlor cars in which people sit in soft arm-chairs and look out of big plate-glass windows. I carry the likes of you? Indeed not!” And off he steamed to the roundhouse, where engines live when they are not busy.

Well, that’s selfish of him, and my heart is broken for the starving hillbillies on the other side of the mountain who apparently had to watch a well-stocked dining car hurtle through their village carrying rich folks in easy chairs. But couldn’t one of the toys just buy a ticket and ride with the passenger train back to the roundhouse so that someone could telegraph for help?

Apparently not.

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