Saturday, March 15, 2008


“Hey, it’s Tootle!”

A few years ago an acquaintance was browsing at the secondhand bookshop when he made a notable find. It was a copy of a children’s title that he enjoyed as a kid, a Little Golden Book dating back to 1946. The acquaintance, in his early twenties, wasn’t alive when the book became popular. Even though Tootle was the creation of the World War II generation, he still had fond memories; something about it resonated with him.

Flipping through the book, he talked about how it told the story of an anthromorphic baby locomotive, Tootle, who wanted to grow up to be a big locomotive. Tootle was an eager student at engine school in the village of Lower Trainswitch, but he had a problem: he liked to wander off the tracks.

The acquaintance bought the book, happy to rediscover a childhood treasure.

Yesterday evening I came across another copy of Tootle at the secondhand bookshop. I picked it up for three reasons. 1: It was cheap. 2: I’m always been intrigued by how children’s books can mold young minds. 3. My brief exposure years before had bothered me.

What was so disturbing? Simple. This concept: Staying on the rails no matter what.

Tootle was told that he couldn’t become a big engine – a flyer – unless he scored a 100 A+ in the most important course, Staying on the Rails.

But every day when Tootle left town to practice what he was taught, he ended up leaving the tracks to explore the meadow. He would look at flowers and play with butterflies.

Tootle felt guilty, despite his enjoyment of his off track playing.

Word soon got back to engine school. The Mayor of Lower Trainswitch said he saw Tootle playing in the meadow one day with butterflies. And, added the Mayor, Tootle looked very silly.

So what could be done to get Tootle back on track? One day the villagers hid throughout the meadow. When Tootle didn’t stay on the rails, a villager would stick up a red flag. No engine could disobey a red flag. It meant stop, immediately.

Every which way Tootle turned, he was stopped by a red flag. He cried. A green flag waited for him on the rails, telling him that this was the only true path for him.

When he finally got back on track, everyone else was happy. And so Tootle was happy.

Despite such a pleasant ending, I ask myself:

Was Tootle really content deep down inside?

In the last scene in the book, the grown-up Tootle is telling young locomotives to Stay on the Rails No Matter What.

Misery likes company.


X. Dell said...

I totally getcha. The issue of conformity is the issue of control.

There's even a hint of biological determinism here. People aren't locamotives. They can adapt to varius situations, and can produce according to their interests. That's something we would consider axiomatic these days. But 1946 was during the era of Jim Crow, a period of time when people were assigned roles in society based on race, gender, or whatever biological construct of identiy placed upon them by society, and expected to conform to them, or else.

The story immediately brings this to my mind. Perhaps I read too deeply, and am guilty of externalization. Nevertheless, stories of conformity always give me the willies.

Ray said...

X. Dell:

One method (or trick, if you prefer) a writer can use in creating an essay is to have a keyword in mind but not mention it or any synonyms. You did get the keyword or theme of this post: conformity.

If you think you were reading too deeply into the book – well, I don’t think so. Especially when you read that the Mayor though Tootle looked “silly.” Ridicule and the threat of embarrassment make great control tools.

Most likely the author, Gertrude Crampton, was consciously writing a book about doing the best job and following the rules, good advice in general for kids. But subconsciously, the theme of conformity for its own sake was there. After all, when Tootle went off the tracks, he didn’t harm anyone or anything. If he ended up killing butterflies or flowers, then the consequences of not following the rules would be different.

Man, I think I’m the one getting too deep into this stupid book…


Doug said...

I wonder if the story was a favorite of George W. Bush as a child. Or as an adult, for that matter.

X. Dell said...

Ray, maybe you aren't getting all that deep into things. I mean, ups don't seem to pay a lot of attention to what we say explicitly and implicitly when we talk to each other. What does a child hear, I wonder?

Ray said...


I suspect the version that Georgie boy read was different. In that one two characters who looked like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove explained why it was OK only for Tootle - and no other engine - to jump off the track, even if he ended up killing many flowers and butterflies.

X. Dell:

You wrote:

I mean, ups don't seem to pay a lot of attention to what we say explicitly and implicitly when we talk to each other.

Maybe I'm misreading your statement, but it sounds like you consider both of us as not "ups" - grown-ups. Well, guilty as charged, at least on my end when it comes to a child's sense of independence.


chris said...

As a child, the story of Tootle was an enjoyable, colorful journey that I read many times over. I was delighted to see Tootle bound from the shackles of the track, and discover his own personal interests and likes out in the bounty of nature. I also learned the importance of hard study, following rules, and obeying superiors. The burden of responsibility always seemed tastefully, and bearably juxtaposed beside the freedoms and whimsical escapades.

However, as a more hairy, somewhat fully-grown man-boy, the only moral I now discern from the Little Golden Book of Tootle is that of the destruction of individuality through conformity and industrialization. The heavy hand of government ordinance is ever-present in Tootle... See More’s mind when his thoughts stray from his long labor. He thinks longingly of playing in open buttercup fields, and dancing with butterflies, but the rigor of his duties becomes increasingly consuming.

Tootle’s personal development and freedoms are continually abolished under the guise of scholastic pursuits and career advancement. He is constantly manipulating by his appointed engineer (who overtly extols him whenever “progress” is made), and subject to wily schemes that are designed to extricate him from the perils of personal choice.

The climatic scene is particularly disparaging, as the entire town wantonly conspires to bar Tootle's passage through his beloved buttercup field with a red flag at every turn. As our protagonist is trapped in a field of flying red flags, crushed and weeping, the Communist message becomes abundant. We at long last are finally left alone to succumb to the quasi-nationalistic machinations of our day; the very essence and spirit of life we began with are smited out beneath the taxing iron sky. The horror of exemption from even a holistic existence is made null, no promise for the flesh that toils now a cog gravely.

I pine no longer for this green earth… the revolution begins at sunrise!

*continues packing frozen corndogs into ice chest*