Recently, I had a chance to look at Virginia Lee Burton’s classic for the first time since I was a child. My memories of the story, though fond, consisted of fast paced machinery digging stuff. As a 39 year old child, I’ve come to realize much more.Burton begins her story with a proud Mike Mulligan showing off Mary Ann (his steam shovel both named and personified with ever-grinning face – I love it!) on a hilltop, rays of light surrounding her; tah dah! The story follows their rise to stardom as key members in the architectural development of our country and the subsequent takeover of more efficient machines. While other steam shovels find their way to the junkyards, Mike can’t bear to leave Mary Ann to such a dismal end and looks for work outside of the busy city.
Throughout the story, Mike remains confident in Mary Ann and proves her worth with a final dig of Popperville’s town hall cellar. Whereas the new and improved technology is taking over in the cities, the steam shovels are still efficient, viable, and even exciting for folks in rural areas. Mary Ann proves to be the newest and fastest digging machine the townspeople have ever seen. In a sense, the story on its face seems to suggest that newer and faster is better. Mary Ann and Mike are nudged aside by better technology and in turn replace “a hundred men” digging the new town hall cellar. However, Burton proposes a clever quandary when Mary Ann literally digs herself too deep with no way out. An insightful little boy’s suggests building the town hall around the machine and the citizens, as well as Mike and Mary Ann of course, agree. Mary Ann retires with pride as the town hall’s heating system and Mike finds a less strenuous position as the building’s janitor; happily ever after. In the end, the town hall doubles as a museum to the old steam shovel and serves as a nostalgic salute to Mike and his contemporaries.
Today, technological advancement (especially as it relates to speed) is nearly constant. It’s hard to deny the improvements in efficiency and perhaps quality of life for those able to take advantage of new technology. Just as challenging is remembering how we got here and realizing that older and slower still have an important role to play in the world. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel almost seems an answer to a child’s question, “What happens to the older (fill in the blank) when the new ones come along?” Though perhaps somewhat idealistic, Burton’s nod to the past and progress is a wonderful book for children brimming with morality and opportunity for meaningful discussion.