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An Open Letter to Thomas the Tank Engine

Long before I was a housewife writing letters to sentient trains, I studied anthropology, and thus far I haven't been able to make sense of you and your friends.
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Thomas the Tank Engine
C/O North Western Railway Company
Island of Sodor

Dear Thomas,

You're a train with a face, so I knew I had to get in touch. For a long time, when your program came on the television, I took it as my cue to lure my children outside with the promise of Popsicles and bubbles. I wasn't giving you a fair shake, Thomas, and I'll tell you why. Long before I was a housewife writing letters to sentient trains, I studied anthropology, and thus far I haven't been able to make sense of you and your friends. I wish I could conduct immersive field research on the Island of Sodor, but for a variety of reasons, that won't be possible. So I'm writing instead. I understand you're busy, what with your own branch line to take care of and all, but I'm hoping you'll humor me by answering a few questions.

Most of your books, television shows and other media focus on the machinations of the North Western Railway Company and its inter-train/sociopolitical dynamics. And you tell some great stories, Thomas. Remember that time you took a shortcut on rough tracks and spilled the kids' library books but then managed to fix your mistake by using Annie and Clarabel to pick the kids up and bring them to the books before story time? Yeah, that's the only episode I sat through, and it wasn't that bad. I will concede that you have a way of hypnotizing my children and turning your mistakes into learning experiences. Have you considered doing The Moth? That one with the library books would kill at a Story Slam.

There are a number of things about you that I can't understand, even after extensively consulting Wikipedia. I hope I'm not crossing any boundaries, but the other day I met a creature at a petting zoo called a "zedonk." Now, I'm not a pervert, but it's difficult to look at a zedonk and not imagine either a donkey mounting a zebra or a zebra mounting a donkey. Wikipedia tells me that most zedonks are sired by a zebra stallion, but it didn't say anything about how an engine could evolve to be "cheeky." Let me be blunt: You're a train with human attributes. Who are your parents? From what monstrous act were you conceived? Is Sir Topham Hatt... your father? Is Sodor some kind of Island of Doctor Moreau-like refuge for his train offspring?

May I tell you my theory of what's going on "behind the scenes" on the Island of Sodor and then you can tell me if I'm right or wrong? For a long time, it seemed like all engines were male and all coaches female, but the addition of Emily to the family of engines changed that. My hunch is that you are polygamously married to your female coaches, Annie and Clarabel. I think Emily might be transexual or intergender. Am I on the right track, Thomas? (No pun intended!)

Let's back up and talk about your culture. How much power does Sir Topham Hatt, a.k.a. The Fat Controller, wield? Have you ever thought about overthrowing him and installing a democracy? Do you have shamans or other spiritual leaders? Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you have a creation myth? Do you have funerary rites? Puberty rites? At what age does a train get betrothed? What are your weddings like? Do you call it "coupling"? Are you allowed to intermarry with the "trainees" of Chuggington? Do you and your friends ever get depressed and contemplate derailing?

What are you, Thomas? Would you say you have more in common with Bender, the Terminator, or Vicki from Small Wonder? Have you ever been in an accident? Do you feel pain? Do you know that episode of Battlestar Gallactica when Starbuck steals a Cylon raider, crashes it and exposes the plane's innards to be a mixture of internal organ gobbledygook and computer parts? Is that what's inside of you?

Let me wrap this up with one last question: What does it mean to be a "really useful engine"? Is there a really useless engine? Is that a dig on those fools over at Chuggington?

I understand that a handwritten response may not be possible given your physical limitations, but maybe Sir or Lady Hatt can take dictation? Or do they not allow you to communicate with outsiders? Is the North Western Railway a cult?! If you'd like my help, please send a smoke signal from your stack. I will look towards the Island of Sodor every evening at dusk.


JJ Keith

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