Once, at a very scholarly conference, I met someone who told me, when he discovered that I was interested in children's books, that there was one book that had mattered most to him in his life. Every time he felt he couldn't go on, every time he felt discouraged, every time he felt put upon and beaten down, he would think of this book and somehow manage to continue and to plough through whatever was blocking the path. Did I know what that book was? he asked. I shook my head "no."
"Well," he said, "of course it was The Little Engine That Could!" He was peering at me like I was the dimmest of bulbs. "I thought of that little engine, pulling that train up the hill, and I made up my mind to be just like that."
What could be a better tribute to this quintessentiallly American book, which was published 70 years ago, about the same time in 1929 that the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression. The book is about bed-rock, positive, can-do American values: work hard, believe in yourself, and never, ever, ever give up: just keep chugging along.
As you start looking into the history of this book, it gets better and better. Watty Piper, the author's name on the title page was really a pseudonym given to a stable of authors working for the publishing house. The real author's name was, essentially, lost with the purchase of the original publisher and, eventually, the destruction of all their records. So, in a way, The Little Engine that Could really belongs to that rare group of works that have become myths, stories of core belief, that are written by millions of life experiences and not by the hand of any one person.
Oh, and one last thing to remember: the Little Engine who pulls that trainload of good things over the mountain for all the good boys and girls on the other side, is female. Reflect on this, and the book takes on still another, deeper set of meanings. Whoever Watty Piper really is, I think she must be very pleased with the endurance of this fable about all those female engines who have pulled this country over the hills and valleys of the American experience, and who are still doing that today.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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