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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-09-05 10:34 am

Newbery Honor: Little Blacknose (Hildegarde Hoyt Swift)

Little Blacknose by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift... is apparently about a train engine. Specifically, the Dewitt Clinton -- the first steam engine built for the New York Central Railroad, according to this book's blurb. It ran between Albany and Schenectady, and literally the only other thing I kind of vaguely know about it is that there was a torchlight procession or some such thing when it was commissioned. I think. This factoid appeared in a Boxcar Children book one time. Unless it was about the opening of the Erie Canal under New York governor Dewitt Clinton. ;S



* Full title: Little Blacknose, The Story of a Pioneer. Does anyone else think Little Blacknose sounded like a story about a prairie mustang?

* The book dedication is "to all good engines and to all boys and girls who like to wave at them." It's set up in, like, free verse format, which strikes me (probably irrationally) as heralding a certain amount of cutesypoo.

* Oh dear. Cutesypoo confirmed. The preface informs me that this is a true story about this train engine; "It is literally his-story!" It credits "a big man in a big office", Charles Frederick Carter the official NYCR historian (apparently not the same person as British economist and academic Charles Frederick Carter), with providing the facts, and... oh wow... the author's son Hewson with writing the"Running Songs" that the engine will sing. Oh dear? At least it's reasonably short, unlike Runaway Papoose.

* 150 pages, twelve chapters, let's go....

* ...huh, here's a different sub-head: "the true and honest story of the Dewitt Clinton engine and of all that he saw and did".

* We begin in the iron foundry where the engine has just been built. His "nose" is his smokestack, "like an upside down elephant's trunk". Okaaay then. The engine is wondering what he is and where he will be going. The foundry foreman, Joe, brings some men in silk hats and striped trousers to look at him; we are informed that "that was the queer way men dressed!" in those days. I feel talked down to. :P

* The fancy men are dubious about Blacknose, but Joe starts to get up steam in his boiler and show them how he can go, and talks to Blacknose while he does it. Blacknose learns that he is an "iron horse" and that one David Mathew (not the Roman Catholic WWII British bishop or the NYC Tory mayor during the American Revolution) will eventually come and fetch him.

* Aaand when David Mathew, about whom I can find no information online, does show up, of course Blacknose identifies immediately that THIS man in a tall silk hat is "nicer" than the others. Because of course he does. *sigh* Kidlit writers of the early 20th century, you have no subtlety.

* David Mathew has a crew of men bring Blacknose on a cart to the river, then onto a steamer which will take him up to Albany. The author does have a turn for phrases little kids can understand -- she tells us Blacknose "weighed as much as forty fat men or one big elephant", which is a pretty evocative image if you ask me, and neatly gets around the question of "how much is a ton?"

(I do math and figure out that Blacknose weighs about four tons or 8000 pounds, assuming a "fat man" weighs about 200 pounds. One large male African elephant can weigh 15,000 pounds, though - almost twice as much as that figure - and Jumbo the Barnum Circus elephant was purportedly around 13,000 pounds, so I don't know.)

* The boat engine talks to Blacknose and bids him greeting in language that could seem kind of stilted but actually reminds me of some of Rudyard Kipling's more formal Jungle Book dialogue. "Were we not born in the same house? Welcome, Brother of the Steam, and good fortune attend you!"

* Blacknose can't answer this courteous speech, since he has no bell or whistle and no steam in his boiler at the moment, which I think is a rather clever little bit of worldbuilding: engines can only "talk" when they have steam to go "choo-choo" with.

* Anyway, they sail up the Hudson; New York's streets only go as far up as Tenth Street in these days, if I'm understanding Mrs Swift's rather elliptical mode of expression properly. I can't figure out whether this is accurate at all. They sail past West Point fort, past some boats...

...another steamboat races them! Blacknose's steamer wins.

* After that Blacknose gets bored, since it takes 15 hours to get to Albany. Finally they arrive. * Blacknose is shuttled off the boat onto a truck, and taken through Albany and through a lot of yelling people to the beginning of the railroad track.

* Then a nasty elderly horse walks up and sneers at Blacknose, taking a page and a half to do so without saying anything more cogent than "You!" He's "a horrible, hardened, insolent sort of horse", which I don't even know what to think about; I can't figure out whether it has classist implications or not. O_O

* Anyway, the horse spends three more pages fussing at Blacknose and getting to his point, which is that the railroad coaches used to be pulled by horses, like trolley cars, and that Blacknose is taking their jobs. The horse dwells very strongly on the idea that Blacknose can't beat a good horse in a fair race... is this THAT engine? The first one that proved a steam locomotive could beat a horse? Wiki isn't saying. Apparently there was an earlier engine called the "Tom Thumb" that lost to a horse due to mechanical failure around this time... heh.

* So then, anyway, the next day, Blacknose is hauled up a hill with a winch and set ready to go along the railroad track proper. The station is at the top of the hill, not in Albany itself; I've been to Albany, which is set in a bowl-like hollow along the Hudson River, and I can totally understand not wanting to try to run an early locomotive up that grade. O_O

* Now here comes David Mathew, and he builds up Blacknose's fire, and he's going to test-drive Blacknose all the way to Schenectady "or you'll blow up and take me to Gallyhooscka", which is a new term to me. I presume it means "perdition". I can't find a single reference to it on Google as being anything else, anyway. (Suggested spellings are galuska, which is a Hungarian version of German egg-noodle-dumpling recipe spaetzle or knepfle, and "Gilly Hicks", apparently a modern brand of women's underwear.)

* Anyway, it's a page or two of short brisk little telling, how David and Blacknose get to Schenectady and how Blacknose gains some confidence in his ability to go fast without blowing up and to stay on the tracks.

* ...then after a celebration at Schenectady, they run him BACKWARDS to Albany, since there was no turntable in Schenectady. He's reasonably worried at first about following the rails without seeing them -- as he quite reasonably would be! But all goes well. It takes Blacknose just 35 minutes to make the downhill run from Schenectady back to Albany.

* We're to Chapter 4 now, which is called "Excursion", about Blacknose's official first trip with a train attached. The Ex-Governor comes, and all sorts of important people. Ah, and we get a date: August 9, 1831.

* The characterization of Little Blacknose is rather clever, I think; his perpective on the world, like Hitty's, is very much affected by his being a locomotive without much experience. He notes that two fat men who come up and christen him have "nicely rounded fronts, like his own boiler", and approves the skin tone of an African American porter as being nearer his own, wondering if the man was "born in a foundry", like Blacknose thinks of himself as having been.

* Five stagecoach-like passenger cars are hooked onto the back of Blacknose, who is now really dubious about his ability to pull such a load. The cars are attached with loose chains, which makes me smile, because I've read about this incident from a human's viewpoint and I know some of what will happen.

* The rude horse from before (referred to in one place as "the ugly horse", because of course the BAD character is ugly... okay, it's for very small kids, but still!) mocks Blacknose again and informs us that a single horse can only pull one of these coaches. The horse doubts Blacknose can pull five.

* Blacknose is now officially named Dewitt Clinton after "the best governor New York ever had", and the excursion gets underway. But the first time they stop to take on more water... yup! The passenger cars all ram into each other and into the back of Blacknose, because none of the cars have individual brakes or stiffened couplings like modern trains. The passengers are rattled around and one little boy falls off the upper deck of a coach -- they are double-deckers -- but everybody's fine, and the engineer and fireman pull a rail fence to pieces and wedge the rails lengthwise between the coaches to keep them from bumping again.

* And, yup! Towards the end of the trip, a lady's bonnet catches fire from the sparks the wood-burning engine puts out. This was kind of a mess of a day, but Mrs Swift assures us everyone was very happy and went on to eat a big celebratory dinner in Schenectady.

* Next chapter. Ahaha... the horses till pull the coaches when it's rainy. Blacknose runs only in fair weather, because the railroad people are taking very good care of him. The grouchy roan horse informs Blacknose that another engine is coming, though, and then (he predicts) they'll make Blacknose work in the rain. Blacknose is worried for a little bit, but he's a self-confident and cheerful little engine, and soon gets over it.

* But here comes a man just as Blacknose is pulling off from Schenectady for a run on a sunny day, and stops the train, and lets David Mathew know that "the new one" has arrived. And... yes, it's a bigger train called the Robert Fulton which has come from England. They're hauling it up the hill at Albany with the winch when Blacknose gets there.

* Blacknose tries to make friends, but the new engine is a snob and will only talk to the winch engine, who is English too. Blacknose's feelings are hurt, and when he overhears that some passengers of his came because they were hoping to ride behind the new engine, he deliberately gives them a very rough ride, which makes them have a bad opinion of all locomotives. He's sorry afterwards, but we're informed that "what he was really sorry for was himself".

* On September 26, 1831, the new big engine goes on an Excursion. Blacknose feels very lonely and worries that he will be left behind and unloved from now on, but... it turns out that the new engine breaks down just outside the train shed, and the Excursion happens with the Dewitt Clinton leading the way instead! :D

* And, you know, after a bit of a slow start, I'm really liking this book. It's a bit pushy about whom we should like, but so far, I'd be proud to read it to a six or seven year old. The engine is very likeable and sympathetic, and the prose has a good swing, and the chapters go quickly.

* Blacknose gets to Schenectady in just 46 minutes, a new record, and far outstrips the horse carriages that took the other half of the passengers that the snotty English engine should have had. (The new engine has twice Blacknose's power, and can pull ten horse-carriages.) It takes the horses 29 more minutes to arrive.

* And then when they get back to Albany, at the then-impressive top speed of 19 miles per hour, the English train apologizes and thanks Blacknose for saving the day, and they make friends. It's sweet. :D

* The two locomotives are fast friends from then on, and they bicker and banter and share gossip about the state of the tracks, and so forth. They're really adorable. When winter comes they stop running because nobody comes to ride in the open coaches, and in April they're fetched out again.

* In August of that year, 1832, another new engine comes from the same foundry where Blacknose was made. It has eight wheels and is called a "truck engine", bacause four of its wheels are attached to a swivel mounted "truck" so it can go around curves. Blacknose and the English engine can't do that, but because the track between Albany and Schenectady is a straight one, it hasn't mattered.

* Historically, the Dewitt Clinton was scrapped in 1833, but that doesn't happen in this book; everything that happened to a replica in real history happens to the preserved original in this story.

* Now, in the book, it is thirteen years later, 1845. Blacknose is old and tired. He doesn't see the English engine much any more. He begins to worry about being broken up for scrap, and one day David Mathew comes out and says "It's your last trip today." He makes one last run, and then he's put into storage at Albany station. He hopes that maybe he won't be scrapped after all, bacuse he WAS the first locomotive on the route and he proved that steam engines could do the work.

* Blacknose stays in storage for fifty years. Sometimes he has good dreams, but sometimes he has nightmares about being scrapped. And one day when some men take him out of storage and haul him down to a foundry and open him up, he thinks he's done for. But no... they just refurbish him and give him new pipes and plates and a new coat of paint. He hopes he'll get to make the old run again. But instead, he's put bodily into a boxcar -- a thing he has never seen before, because his carriages were open-sided and he didn't carry cargo -- and shipped off somewhere.

* Aha! Blacknose is taken to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. (Historically, this is what the replica was built for.) He is put on display there. And one day, the little girl that he made trainsick by giving her a bumpy ride when he was angry about being snubbed by the English engine, comes to the Fair and recognizes him and tells her granddaughter the story. And he gets to hear that she forgives him for shaking her up, and remembers him fondly after all these years! Aww. :-)

* Ooh, and he gets to see his old friend the English locomotive too! They can't talk because they're on display and have no steam in their boilers, but... this is really so sweet. I like this book.

* But now the World's Fair is over and they put Blacknose back into storage in Albany. He stays there for 33 more years.

* Then they pull him out again and run him along a special little track, alongside a big modern engine which goes slowly to wait for him. Everyone riding in the coaches wears 1830s costume, so it must be some kind of anniversary celebration for the railroad. Blacknose is 92 years old now, and... yes, the railway is 100. (That would mean that in this story the railroad was incorporated in the early 1820s. Historically the Mohawk & Hudson, later the New York Central Railroad, was incorporated in 1826, just five years before the Dewitt Clinton made its first run.)

* After that, Blacknose is wrapped up in canvas and shipped out on a flatcar. He worries that this time he really is going to be scrapped. But no... he's put on a display stand in Grand Central Station! :D And there he stands to this day, or he did when this book was published.

* You can see a picture of the replica at that link - click to enlarge. Henry Ford bought him in 1934, with the condition that he should still travel to fairs and expositions on behalf of the railroad. He went to the 1939 New York World's Fair and the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair, and he now stands in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

* And you know, I'm glad he gets a happy ending, at least in the story. I've come to love this little old engine over the last 150 pages. :-)

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