By Virginia Lee Burton
(Houghton Mifflin, 1939)
If you read my last post, you know I am not particularly fond of The Story of Ferdinand. Sometimes a “classic” does not hold up due to changes in society over time. I thought it would be interesting to follow up that post by featuring another favorite from the same time period. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel celebrates a machine already passé at the time of publication. Ironically, this quirk helps the book remain relevant.
One might say Mike Mulligan is not a man who changes with the times. Despite rapid advances in industry, he fails to switch over to the bigger, better gasoline shovels, electric shovels and Diesel motor shovels. Mike remains devoted to Mary Anne, his trusty steam shovel which has a long record of serving man’s desire to alter the natural landscape, digging “as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week” (or so Mike believes).
Urban contractors have moved on, leaving Mike and Mary Anne with nothing to do. Still, Mike refuses to sell the steam shovel for scrap metal. Instead, he sets off in the machine in search of work outside the city, eventually coming upon a small town called Popperville whose citizens are about to begin digging the cellar for a new town hall. (Small town folks may be offended here. While the cities have progressed to the bigger and better machines, the people of Popperville seem to be stuck in the man-shovel era. A steam shovel can do the job in a day?! Preposterous!)
And so Mike and Mary Anne get the dig gig. The stakes are high: finish in a day or no pay. Boys who root for The Little Engine that Could will also rally behind Mary Anne as Mulligan and the steam shovel work “faster and better” when more of the townsfolk show up to watch. (Yes, no one in town—from the constable and the postman to the farmer and the teacher with the distracted pupils—has anything else to do. Not in Popperville and not in neighboring towns.)
The steam shovel chugs along as does the day. It’s a race against time. A predicament occurs at the end of the day, one that is ludicrous but will be accepted by young readers. Ultimately both man and machine are repurposed.
There is much that adults and children can discuss after reading the book. There are historical references to the way things were: old-fashioned cars, the milkman making deliveries in his horse-drawn cart, the firemen rushing to the scene led by horses as well. Planes and canals show changes in transportation as the small town continues to exist adhering to old ways.
Moreover, the push for bigger and better is just as strong today, from seeking the latest toys and designer clothes to the coveted new technological gadgetry we are told we cannot do without. If something still works, do we appreciate it any longer? How many bells and whistles are required? (Think of “Toy Story”, The Giving Tree or the previously reviewed Thing-Thing.) Just as in the industrial age, advances come rapidly in the technological age. What renders something obsolete? Is anything lost through our “gains”?
Discussion aside, Mike Mulligan is a story that will prompt boys to imagine their toy tractors and cars have personalities, maybe even names. Vroom! Bang! Smash! Time to save Mary Anne! The story still deserves a place on bookshelves today.