"Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong."
The beloved tale of the little blue engine — who helps bring a broken-down train of toys to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain — has been chugging along for a very long time. But despite the locomotive's optimistic refrain — I think I can, I think I can, I think I can — the story has a somewhat checkered past: In its tracks, The Little Engine has left both a legal battle and a debate over whether the little blue engine is male or female.
The exact origins of the plucky, blue switch engine are a mystery. Variations on the tale have been around for more than 100 years.
"Interestingly, the oldest version of the story I could find was published in 1903 in Sweden," says Roy Plotnick, who spent 10 years investigating the little engine's back story as a hobby. (By day, Plotnick is a paleontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago).
Another version he found appeared in a New York newspaper article in 1906 about a church in Brooklyn that had finally paid off its mortgage after 39 years. The article reported on the minister's sermon: "They had a mortgage burning," says Plotnick, and the minister told a parable that is recognizable as a version of the story of the little engine:
He then went to another great engine and asked: "Can you pull that train over the hill?"
"It is a very heavy grade," it replied.
The superintendent was much puzzled, but he turned to still another engine that was spick-and-span new, and he asked it: "Can you pull that train over the hill?"
"I think I can," responded the engine.
The most familiar version of the tale was inspired by a story called "The Pony Engine" and published in a children's magazine in 1916 by Massachusetts educator Mabel Bragg. She added new elements to the story including the broken-down train carrying cargo for kids like toys, peppermint drops, and — every child's favorite vegetable — spinach.
The first time The Little Engine That Could was published as a book was in 1930 with the credit "as retold by Watty Piper," a pseudonym for Arnold Munk, who died in 1957. His daughter, Janet Fenton, was never too fond of the pen name.
"I think it's ridiculous, but he seemed to like it so that's what he used," says Fenton.
With all of the different versions of the engine story being told in one form or another, small wonder that Munk faced a legal battle. In the 1950s, a woman claimed that it was her cousin — Frances Ford — who wrote the story in 1910. The details of the case were sealed but Fenton says her father prevailed.
"I don't know if he sued somebody or somebody sued him, but he won," says Fenton.
Still, publishers of The Little Engine That Could did agree to let another company print an adaptation of Ford's story under the title The Pony Engine.
Now, to the next controversy: Children who read the story may not think much about whether the little blue engine is male or female. But adults do. If you remember the story, three trains — all male — refuse to help the broken-down engine over the mountain. They are too important, too busy, or too tired to pull an engine full of toys. ("I won't carry the likes of you!" they said to the disappointed dolls and stuffed animals).
The little blue engine who (after significant cajoling) agrees to help is female — and also self-deprecating. "They only use me for switching trains in the yard. I have never been on the other side of the mountain," she protests.
My colleague Beth Novey says that The Little Engine That Could was "leaning in" long before Sheryl Sandberg was. Francesco Sedita, president of the Penguin division that publishes The Little Engine That Could, likes the characterization.
She was "literally the first to lean in! She really is the poster engine of the can-do attitude," says Sedita.
Now, over the years, some versions of the little blue engine have been male. And some folks have gotten pretty steamed over the issue. When the engine is a "she," people have assumed the gender was changed to make the story politically correct. But in fact, she was a "she" as early as 1930.
Blogger Lara McKusky argues that the little blue engine is a do-it-all, Supermom martyr who is pressured into pulling more than she signed on for — while male trains had no problem setting boundaries and saying no.
Whatever your views on the little blue engine — male or female — the idea of a small train beating the odds through sheer will and determination is so old and so recognizable, it just had to be parodied. In 1976, Saturday Night Live did a bit about a little engine who has a heart attack and dies.
The more innocent, healthier Little Engine turns 85 in 2015.
Crime writer Ann Cleeves puts it best in her novel Dead Water: "Shetland didn't do pretty. It did wild and bleak and dramatic."
The Shetland Islands are a damp and rocky place, with endless miles of green and gray. Humanity seems to cling to the land here like a few tenacious barnacles. "I love the idea of long, low horizons with secrets hidden underneath," Cleeves says.
These Scottish islands lie hundreds of miles from any mainland, as far north as the tip of Greenland. And thanks to Cleeves, they've been the setting for five popular crime novels.
"There are no trees in Shetland, and you can't do overgrown language here," she says. "The language has to be simple, because that's how the landscape is."
This is a land of extremes. In the winter, you barely see the sun, and during midsummer, the daylight never leaves. If that sounds bucolic, it also has a fearsome side. In the middle of the night, the sun comes streaming through the window, upending any sense of time and place. "[People] came looking for paradise or peace and found the white nights made them even more disturbed," Cleeves writes in White Nights, the series' second book.
'Seen From The Sea'
A few days before the summer solstice, Cleeves takes me to meet her friends Jim Dickson and Ingrid Eunson in the small town of Brae. Blue eggs sit on the counter — they were freshly laid by the chickens in the yard. While Dickson puts on the tea kettle, Eunson pulls out homemade bannocks. They're a local food, like a thin, chewy scone, served with butter and jam Eunson made with rhubarb from her garden.
"This is classic Shetland," Cleeves says. "You'd never get invited into a house without being offered something."
Eunson and Dickson read Cleeves' mysteries before they're published. Cleeves relies on them to make sure she gets the local details right.
"They're very accurate, because we do have that amount of murder," Eunson deadpans. Actually, this is a place where people leave their houses unlocked when they go to work in the morning.
You're never more than a few miles from the water in Shetland. Centuries before there were roads here, people got around by boat. Today, fishing is still the biggest industry, and huge salmon and mussel farms lie just offshore. So do the North Sea oil fields, which have made Shetland very wealthy.
In Dead Water, Cleeves writes, "Shetland only made sense when it was seen from the sea." So, after our tea and bannocks, Dickson takes us out in his boat. We motor past soaring red cliffs where puffins, gulls and red-throated divers wheel overhead. They nest in the sheer rock faces and plunge into the water for sand eels and mackerel.
Shetland is a global destination for birdwatchers, and while there may not be murder here, there is violence. Dickson points out a massive seabird — the great skua — chasing a small arctic tern. He explains that the great skua will kill other birds, "two great skuas get together, and they'll tire out a gannet, and eventually they will drown it. And then they pluck the feathers off, and then they'll eat it."
That may sound horrific, but Dickson shrugs: "It's nature."
The Perfect Murder
Dickson pulls the boat into a little cove where seals lie on rocks with their newborns. We're miles from any other human. Cleeves and I start hiking up cliffs covered with wildflowers. The drop-off is dizzying.
Ever the crime writer, Cleeves starts musing aloud. "I did ask a pathologist friend of mine, 'What's the best way to commit the perfect murder?' He reckoned pushing somebody over a cliff. Because how would you know whether they'd fallen or just been pushed?"
I step back from the ledge.
We reach a low horseshoe shape carved out of the hillside. It's peat. In these islands, many people dig peat to burn in the winter for warmth. (Remember, there are no trees for firewood.) In Raven Black, the series' first book, a young murder victim's body is discovered preserved in peat years after she was killed. Cleeves explains that this is actually grounded in science: "Archaeological remains have been found with bodies, centuries old, preserved in peat. It has a quality where the skin is preserved almost like leather."
'Soothmoothers' And A 'Peerie Smoorikin'
Cleeves has been making regular trips to the Shetland Islands for 40 years. Her books are so popular that a tourism agency has put out a map showing where key scenes in the novels take place. But she's still an outsider, or what locals call a soothmoother — someone who arrives on the ferry through the south mouth of the Bressay Sound.
This is a place where people take their heritage seriously.
"My father can trace his roots back to the 1600s," says Edna Burke, who used to run a bookshop here. She's happy to give an example of the local dialect, with influences from Scotland and Scandinavia: "Well, if I was just to be very cheeky and say, 'Can I have a peerie smoorikin?' it would be, 'Can I have a small kiss!' "
Burke, who now gives tours of the islands, says visitors often come having seen the popular BBC adaptation of the Shetland mysteries. The TV show is all moody fog and low clouds.
Discovering Shetland's Crime Fiction Potential
While these islands have made Ann Cleeves's career, it took her a long time to write about them. She first came to Shetland in the early 1970s as an aimless 20-something college dropout who was hired to be an assistant cook in a bird observatory. "I didn't know anything about birds, and I couldn't cook," she says.
While working at the observatory, Cleeves met the man she would marry. Two years later, they moved away. Cleeves became a crime writer, without much success, writing a book a year for 20 years. Though she came back to Shetland all the time, she never set a novel here. Then one winter, she was in Shetland bird watching with her husband. Snow had fallen, frozen over with ice, and Cleeves saw ravens — black against the bright white snow.
"And then I thought, because I'm a crime writer: If there was blood as well, it would be really quite mythic," she says. "Like fairy stories with those colors — like 'Sleeping Beauty' or 'Snow White.' And just with that image I started writing Raven Black."
Her agent said it would have to be a standalone. It just wasn't believable to have lots of murders set in a small cluster of islands like Shetland. Then Raven Black became a huge hit. It won the biggest crime fiction award in the U.K. Now, the sixth Shetland novel is coming out in the spring.
Edan Lepucki's debut, California, sold thousands of copies even before the official publication date when talk-show host Stephen Colbert urged readers to pre-order it from a national independent chain as a protest against the "books-and-everything else" giant, Amazon. It was a powerful campaign and regardless of how one feels about the online retailer, and the stranglehold many acknowledge it has on the global book market, this encouragement to support local and independent booksellers and to champion the work of a new novelist definitely gets my vote.
With this in mind, I noted with amusement that Amazon is mentioned as a founding sponsor of one of the Communities to which the wealthy have retreated in the "afterlife" of this post-apocalyptic novel.
Where the genre convention would be for the end of civilization to have been wrought by some disaster (terrorist attack, alien invasion, zombie infestation or a plague — take your pick), Lepucki tells instead of a gradual decline. Freak weather storms, a shortage of gas, a perpetually depressed economy, a health care system that cannot stem the spread of disease and a failing federal government all combine to wear down the Union until it is no longer functional and citizens have to create new forms of governance. The U.S. has ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, and those without resources find themselves condemned to the wilderness.
Although neither the exact location nor the year is mentioned, we know we are in California in the not-too-distant future. Frida and her husband Cal — a couple in their late 20s — have escaped a dangerous and barely functional Los Angeles and have, for the past two years, eked a meager but content existence away from what remains of civilized society.
It is Frida who names this their "afterlife." By dislocating the action from the present and familiar, this could have been a vehicle for the writer to focus on important themes, to tackle issues with language and ideas that feel fresh and new. Indeed, the matter-of-fact cataloging of their daily routine of foraging, gardening, hunting — of just surviving — and the nostalgic mention of all the things they still long for from "before" (meat, coffee, soap) gives some idea of all that has gone. We know that at some point gas and electricity became too expensive for ordinary people, that the Internet had become a privilege only for the very rich before it collapsed altogether. But as described, it is a tedious life, and the trivial domestic skirmishes that punctuate the couple's existence do little to endear them to the reader.
In the early pages of the novel, Frida discovers that she is pregnant. She convinces her husband that they will have to make a difficult decision for the sake of their unborn child. Abandoning their solitary homestead, they set out to find a community that will accept them. It is this struggle to make a life in a drastically altered world that is at the heart of any good after-the-end story. Frida and Cal leave their little patch of Eden, and after two days' journey, find themselves on "the Land" — a settlement built around what once was a Wild West heritage village. For a time, it seems they may have found a home.
The Land offers a community where all labor together and share resources. It is as secure as the times allow, and Cal and Frida work hard to ensure the support of their new neighbors when the formal community vote on their joining is scheduled. All the elements are here for an examination of society and self through the powerful, distorted prism that is genre fiction. What happens when the structures that held civilization together disappear or are worn down? How would we behave? Do we hold on to the past or create something new? At this point, California seems to promise answers to these questions.
My trouble with this book was not its failure to live up to genre conventions — any good story can get away with breaking the rules. But I was disappointed that the characters remained thin, even through plot twists and revelations that should have granted them life beyond the page. The narrative leaps and too-timely disclosures (there is a resurrection of sorts and the revelation of several secrets including a conspiracy-laden master plan) meant that the story never felt entirely believable — so much does not hold together that it was impossible for me to feel truly invested in the story or convinced of the possible future the author imagined.
Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.
Rainbow Rowell writes conventional fiction unconventionally. They're romances, but there's no meeting-cute, or ripping bodices — the people in them seem real.
Rowell got a lot of attention last year for her best-selling young adult romance, Eleanor & Park, about a half-white, half-Korean boy who falls in love with an overweight white girl. Her newest novel, and her second for adults, is called Landline.
"Our cellphones can do everything, but they're bad at letting us talk to each other," Rowell grouses. She misses the not-so-long-ago era of landlines, so one of the characters in her new book is a phone — one that's yellow, rotary and plugs into a wall. In the 1990s, Rowell says, landlines were for her a critical — even visceral — tool for romance.
"Having that cord in your mouth, that twisty cord, and the way that you would bite on it," she enthuses, "or the feeling of the little holes in the receiver up against your mouth, or how immediate the other person's voice was. It's very difficult, I think, especially on two cellphones, to have a romantic conversation."
Landline's main character is Georgie, a busy mom who works in television. Her husband, Neal, is a stay-at-home dad. They separate ostensibly for a family vacation, but maybe for real. Then Georgie finds a magic phone that lets her call her husband in the past, in the early days of their courtship:
It was like getting him back. Her Neal. (Her old Neal.)
He was right there and she could ask him anything she wanted.
"Tell me more about the mountains," Georgie said, because she wasn't really sure what to ask. Because "tell me where I went wrong" might break the spell.
And because what she wanted more than anything else was just to keep listening.
"The device of the landline is so clever," says book critic and occasional NPR contributor Amal El-Mohtar, "it's so, so clever." And, she points out, because it's a Rainbow Rowell romance, Landline upends genre expectations. "This is definitely a romance story that doesn't get told very often — the story of staying in love as opposed to falling in love."
Rowell says she was concerned about showing characters falling in love. Even though she loves romantic comedies, she hates it when the main characters experience love through a really good montage to a Motown soundtrack.
"I get so frustrated by that because I love love stories," she exclaims. "They're my favorite thing about every story."
That's why The Empire Strikes Back is her favorite part of the Star Wars trilogy — the romance between Han and Leia. But for someone who loves romances, Rowell is awfully fond of subverting them.
"In my mind, every single female character I've written is plus-size," she says firmly, meaning main characters — her romantic protagonists. "I enjoy stories about thin women — I read them frequently. I enjoy them, I root for those characters, but I always feel like there are enough of them out there and there are enough of them in the spotlight."
Rowell's plus-sized romantic characters are not pathologized or fetishized. Eleanor of Eleanor & Park is brave, smart, curious and resourceful. She manages to keep it together while living in a low-income, frighteningly abusive family. She's described as big and awkward, and her boyfriend, Park, is passionately in love with her.
Rowell says, "One of the questions I get from people who have just read Eleanor & Park is, 'How fat is Eleanor? She's not that fat, is she?' I get that all the time."
As if there's no way a fat female character could be desirable. Which runs, obviously, counter to reality.
"You know, attraction is something that happens between two people and not between anyone else," Rowell says. "Nobody else gets to vote on who you are attracted to. It isn't as if just, you know, only this certain type of person gets to fall in love."
Just writing about the one type of beauty that gets so much play everywhere else strikes Rowell as silly. She also challenges the idea that a wedding is the end point of a romance, or that once heroines meet their Mr. Rights everything will be A-OK from that point forward.
"That's a fallacy because they are going to change and change and change," she says. "And you are going to change and change and change. And it's so much more like agreeing to change next to each other."
And that's where Rowell's real sense of romantic subversion comes in.
Roxane Gay's new collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is littered with defiant, regal I's. "I do not care for epigraphs." "I was not impressed."
Gay — novelist, essayist and relentless documenter of her own life — proclaims her I-ness everywhere she goes: On her blog, she describes what she ate for dinner, what made her mad on an airplane, what she's afraid of, what she's ashamed of, what makes her lonely.
Everything is about her — and that's how it should be. Gay never obscures her authorial self, never pretends that her writings were birthed immaculately, handed down whole from the mount whence cultural judgments are dispensed. In every sentence, she's there: exposed, doubtful, present.
And Roxane Gay makes me nervous. There's something about the bareness, the unabashed need that oozes out of her words (because that's how we treat need: as if it's seeping and possibly infectious) that makes me feel exposed just reading them, like she's giving up our secrets, us humans with our sadness and weird toes and fear of being alone.
So when I sit down with her in a D.C. diner, I don't know what to say. She has written with exacting honesty about nearly everything I could ask her about. Do I poke the wounds even more, try to draw more blood, extract even more raw personal truths? Do I ask her limp questions about her writing schedule (which I know about anyway, since she has explained it on her blog)?
She — all in black, tattooed, kind — gets it. "I'm a hard person to interview."
Gay has just published her first novel, An Untamed State. It's a brutal account of a woman, Miri, who is kidnapped — then held and raped for two weeks when her father refuses to pay a ransom. The book is harrowing: Truly, it harrows. With iron teeth it pulls up things that do not want to be pulled up.
"I think it should be unreadable or unwatchable when you talk about sexual violence," Gay says. "So I tried to write to that point of unreadability, where you have to look away. It's not that I wanted to traumatize the reader, but I wanted to be true to the story as I felt it needed to be told. And so I stared the violence down instead of writing around it. I made myself cry a couple of times, but then I would step back and remind myself that it was a novel."
An Untamed State is remarkable for a trauma book, in that it shows that the recovery is almost as difficult as the trauma itself. In Miri's life, there is only "the before" and "the after," and the after doesn't offer easy redemption, but nightmares, cold sweats and alienation from the people who love her. "We have a really stylized understanding of trauma in popular culture," Gay says, "where something bad happens and the person has a period of mourning or coping and then they get better."
In the novel, Miri's story gets turned into a TV movie, which she watches over and over again, comforted to see her trauma being "neatly endured and resolved."
I ask Gay if recovery is only a fiction. "No, I don't think it's a fiction, but I think we have a fictionalized understanding of what recovery means," she says. "Especially for Miri, in the novel, recovery is just getting to a place where she wants to be alive, and feels alive, and can be present in her life. But I think we like to believe that recovery means we can get over everything and that we can forgive those who have trespassed against us. And I just refuse to do that. And I believe in forgiveness but find it very difficult to offer up forgiveness, and I don't particularly feel like forgiveness frees you from your burden of trauma [she says this last phrase with contempt]. I think we just tell ourselves these palliative things to just become more comfortable. And to believe we can overcome anything."
Gay was gang-raped when she was in seventh grade. She describes it with terrible understatement in an essay in Bad Feminist: "They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger." Before the rape, she writes, "I knew things but I knew nothing about what a group of boys could do to kill a girl."
She told no one until she was 19 or 20. Her family still doesn't know it happened, she says. Asked why she finally made the choice to write about it in her essays, she says, "I don't know, honestly. I just think about stories that need to be told. I also think I was silent for a very long time, and all it did was damage me. And I'm trying to undo that damage at this point in my life, and part of undoing that damage is just being open and saying yes, these things happened. I don't want to carry this secret anymore. And I don't need to."
Gay speaks of her writing as a kind of exorcism. She writes, "I used to think I didn't have triggers because I told myself I was tough. I was steel. I was broken beneath the surface, but my skin was forged, impenetrable. Then I realized I had all kinds of triggers. I simply had buried them deep until there was no more room inside me. When the dam burst, I had to learn how to stare those triggers down. I had a lot of help, years and years of help. I have writing."
Gay is the kind of prolific that can only be accounted for by need. She's currently working simultaneously on three more novels as well as a nonfiction book, Hunger, about bodies and eating. Writing is her "self medication," she explains. "Also, I cloned myself. The other one's taking a nap."
Gay has been making up stories since she was a child, she says, drawing villages on napkins and populating them with imaginary people. She drew me one as we talked, a black ink sketch of a church on top of rolling hills. (I put it in my purse, where it slowly disintegrated, and now every few days small scraps of village are disgorged from the bag's unknowable depths.)
Her new book, Bad Feminist, is a lightly scrambled collection of her Internet writings on things ranging from competitive Scrabble to the complications of modern feminism. "I am failing as a woman," she writes in one essay. "I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions."
In a different essay, she says she is "trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it's just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground."
"But is feminism that monolithic?" I ask. "Are those necessarily contradictions?" She says, "I think the way feminism is talked about is monolithic. A lot of what I'm exploring in Bad Feminist is how I'm overcoming the preconceived notions I've had about feminism and what feminism actually is, and confusing feminists with feminism."
Gay's problem might be that she's not very good at faking. Most people have an idea of who they are or who they want to be (good feminist, happy person), and go about projecting some more or less consistent version of it. Gay doesn't, or if she does, she's terrible at it.
"I do have personal boundaries and I'm actually a very private person, but there's no point in pretending I'm always cheerful," she says. "I'm not. That's just not me, and I don't feel the need to create a persona. And I don't feel the need to play the games that sometimes people play, like projecting a perfect life or a happy life or very well crafted insecurities. No, I kind of have them all."
Before she leaves for her reading, she says she hates speaking in public. And then I watched her make a room full of people fall in love with her, wholly and rapturously. She was poised, funny, charismatic. Afterward, she posted a video of the reading, writing under it, "It is excruciating to see myself on video. What is with my eyes rolling around weirdly? Why do I have a lisp when I read? And my boobs."
Gay may be her own biggest critic, but she still won't read Internet comments. She explains, "I think if you're a person with an opinion on the Internet, you get shit. And if you're a woman, well then, Whoa now, little lady, where do you get off thinking? So it's not that I don't want to engage or that I'm closed off to disagreement. But I am closed off to comments that say, 'You're fat and ugly,' because only one of those things is true. And it's not engaging with what I've written. I already have low enough self-esteem. I don't have to go and wade in there and hate myself a little more."
If Roxane Gay is, in her own words, "a mess of contradictions," it's there in the open. She's poised and a wreck, successful and vulnerable, proud and full of self-loathing, highly guarded and longing to be known. In short — a person.