Smokey

(previous entries in this series are here.)

Following on from 1961’s Huge Harold is Smokey, which was published in 1962. Smokey has some of the same themes as Huge Harold–namely, the character that doesn’t fit in and needs to find his rightful place in the world. As I said before, this is a theme that pops up again and again in Peet’s work.

Smokey is an old switch engine who longs to travel the open country like the big diesel engines he so admires. He dreams big. He imagines himself out there, among mountains and plains, traveling over bridges and through tunnels. Alas, that’s not his place in life. As the cover suggests, things do not work out well for poor Smokey.

All he gets to see are the freight cars and the dismal smoke-shrouded train yard.

When he’d switched the last car and his work was all through,
With no place to go and with nothing to do,
He would sit on the loneliest part of the track
Blowing smoke rings like daydreams from out of his stack.
He would watch them go drifting away through the air
And wish that he too might be going somewhere.

Smokey also happens to be fairly run-down. So much so that he overhears plans to retire him to the junkyard. This is all the motivation he needs to run away.

His life on the run covers familiar ground. (Just recall Ella’s life after she ran away from the circus.) This is where we get our Bill Peet staples. Smokey gets chased by some “bad guys,” encounters a farmer and his dog, rolls through a spooky forest, gets chased by a bigger train, and finally finds himself in a heap of trouble.

What’s interesting about vintage books like these is what childrens publishers and authors could get away with in the early 60s. The prevalence of guns in previous books is one example. The “bad guys” in this book are another. Smokey passes a group of Native Americans who mistake his smoke rings for an insult. These are scenes you would never see in a kids book today, without an entire page of narrative explication putting the thing in appropriate context.

Smokey eventually derails and lands in a duck pond. The railroad company fishes him out, crushed smokestack and all. The twist of fate here is that his smokestack can now blow out numbers and letters, making him special indeed to one Adelaide Fry.

Who’s Adelaide Fry? Well, she’s a teacher who buys Smokey to help her students read. But she’s so much more than that. She’s the first–and I’m fairly certain only–female human character in all of Peet’s books. (I’m not counting witches here.) So it only makes sense that if she’s a woman…and not an animal or witch…then she must be a teacher.

This is 1962. Indians throwing spears are our bad guys. We’re lucky that Miss Fry got a name!

In the end, we’re left to assume that Smokey is content with his new purpose in life: a letter-blowing schoolhouse pet. (We’re never told if he’s happy or not.) I guess his rocky experience on the run for his life cured him of his lifelong dream to ride the rails through the open country. On the final page, he’s not even on track anymore. He’s a veritable prisoner at the school.

This all has strong echoes of the ending of Huge Harold. If you recall, Harold is rescued by a farmer and put to work, essentially, as a draft horse. Ultimately, he found “pleasure” (i.e., safety) in serving humans. Smokey finds the same solace.

In the end, this is not the strongest outing for Peet, but as this is only his third book, he’s still an artist/author finding his footing. The story may be a rehash of his previous book, but it’s obvious that Peet is playing with his storytelling style and trying to find his voice. And we’ll revisit the story of a runaway train in 1971, where it’s done to much better effect. So stay tuned for that.

Next up: The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg

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