Some people can critique classic works of literature until the cows come home. Whole college courses can be based on picking apart the subtext of a single book. I am not one of these people. I needed Cliff Notes to make sense of Othello.
I do see an underlying theme when I read the children’s book “Tootle” to my son. In a general sense, I believe it is trying to teach children to follow everyone else and do not dare to be different or yourself.
I believe more specifically that the purpose of the story is to convince those that might have gay tendencies that they should “stay on the tracks” and lead a heterosexual life. I will attempt to showcase my points below.
TOOTLE, by Gertrude Crampton, Random House, 1945. All Rights Reserved.
Synopsis: Tootle attends the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives, but soon is distracted from his studies when he realizes he enjoys playing in the meadow more than staying on the tracks.
CHOICE OF WORDS
On the first page of the Little Golden Book edition is the following:
“The young locomotives steam up and down the tracks, trying to call out the long, sad TooOooot of the big locomotives. But all they can do is a gay little Tootle.”
About halfway through the book is the line:
“It’s queer. It’s very queer, but I found grass between Tootle’s front wheels today.”
Now, I am not stupid. I know that the words “gay” and “queer” were not exclusively used to describe homosexuals in 1945, as we tend to use them today. But, both words in the same story? Add that together with the overall story, and I feel like the presence of these two words helps to prove my point.
What is Tootle’s impetuous for leaving the tracks he knows that he is not supposed to leave, no matter what?
Not just any horse. “A fine, strong black horse.”
It just sounds like Tootle was rolling past a gay bar (rather than the meadow in the book), and was seduced off the path of good (the tracks representing heterosexuality) into a life of filth and shame.
“When Tootle got back to school, he said nothing about leaving the rails. But he thought about it that night in the roundhouse.”
What else was he doing at night in the roundhouse as he thought about it?
Tootle comes upon a meadow full of buttercups.
He exclaims “How I should like to play in them and hold one under my searchlight to see if I like butter!”
To me, this symbolizes Tootle wanting to try out the gay lifestyle. In the next breath, his conscience is saying to him “Do you like butter? Do you? It is almost like the writer is implying he hears evil voices in his head, like when the little devil stands on your shoulder in a carto0n. Except apparently Tootle’s devil is in his wheels.
I mean, why would an engine ever say that? Even an anthropomorphic engine in a book. Thomas would never go off his tracks (intentionally).
There is lots of dancing whenever Tootle goes off the tracks into the meadow. And Tootle also seems to always wear flower chains while he is dancing in the meadow. Like he has to put on his club clothes before he goes out dancing or something.
Tootle is seen chasing butterflies by the Mayor. Is that 1940’s code for “fairy”?
The whole town has to come together to get him back on track (Get it?). They use red flags to stop him from continuing his meadow-playing ways. It makes me think of church folk telling him he will go to hell (Beware the RED flags!) if he continues down his sinful, trackless path.
The tracks. I can’t help but think, since Tootle is a male engine, that the tracks must symbolize his path to the female vagina? If it was “queer” and “fun” for him to play off the tracks in the meadow, then the normal route down the tracks must be boring and average.
The book starts of and ends with Tootle being told to aspire to be a “Flyer”. The Flyer is fast. Probably too fast to ever have time to think about getting off the tracks.
Once reformed, Tootle exclaims:
“This is the place for me. There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”
He learns to “Stay on the Rails No Matter What”. As in, stay on the track to the life you are supposed to lead, the heterosexual one.
Embrace conformity! For it is the only way!
My son loves Thomas and all things trains, but I feel bad reading this book to him.
I mismatch my socks every day. I used to have three piercings in two ears. I have tattoos. I got married in jeans. I wear my wedding ring on my right hand. I live my life as “anti-conformity” as I can, while still being overly responsible and dependable.
If it leads him to a better path, I want my son to leave the tracks. I want him to follow the path in his heart, not what the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives (school) tells him, not what the townspeople (religion, society) tell him, if it is different from what is in his heart.*
I heard this story as a child, and thought nothing of it. Now it perturbs me every time I hear my husband reading it to my son.
Maybe it is time for this children’s story to be retired.
* Except he is NEVER to become a vegetarian. That is just not cool.