I didn't mean to write about another book this week, especially another book about trains, but my husband and I took the train to Boston last Monday for our anniversary, and I got to thinking about one of my least favorite children's stories: Tootle.
"The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run," says Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. I love that book -- wrote my graduate thesis on Melville -- but that doesn't mean I approve of Ahab's iron-railed pathway. Inflexibility can be dangerous and damaging.
When my boys were little, I wanted them to become themselves, not somebody else's idea of who or what they ought to be, so I stopped reading that book. My mother and I got into an argument over it; she insisted that a train belongs on the tracks, and that people, too, need to figure out where they belong and what they are meant to do, and live accordingly. I suspect some of our contention had to do with generational differences: she grew up during the Great Depression, whereas I was a child of the '60's. (One of the illustrations does show Tootle looking a lot like a flower child of my generation.)Older now than my mother was then, I begin to understand her reasoning: after all, I did want the Amtrack Downeaster to stay on the rails last Monday; I do want my doctor to practice careful medicine; I want my priest to be a faithful pastor. But the injunction to "stay on the rails no matter what" still seems to promote a kind of mindless, dangerous conformity.
And just as there turns out to be published commentary about sexism in The Little Engine that Could, last week's book (scroll through http://tigger.uic.edu/~plotnick/littleng.htm, with thanks to my dear friend Dina) there is also an article that talks about Tootle as an anti-gay book (see http://prospect.org/article/tootle-ex-gay-train), so it seems particularly appropriate to celebrate the Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down DOMA by questioning what becomes of the free-spirited Tootle.
And, in spite of my book-bashing here, it's probably ok to read Tootle to our kids as long as it's balanced by plenty of other books with more openly creative and inclusive messages. That said, it's not one I will buy for my grandchildren.