Steam shovels are a thing of the past, but Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel remains timeless. First published in 1939, this year marks the 60th anniversary of Virginia Lee Burton's tale of perseverance and preservation. Mike Mulligan and his beloved steam shovel, Mary Anne, traveled from town to town digging canals, railways, highways, landing fields, and cellars for skyscrapers. Little by little, the jobs were far more difficult to come by until there were no more jobs left for steam-operated shovels. Mike couldn't bear to part with Mary Anne, who had been cared for so tenderly she was like new.
Mike and Mary Anne traveled to Popperville, where a new town hall was to be built. Mike struck a deal with Henry B. Swap to dig the town hall cellar in one day or there would be no charge.
An ending involving the cellar being dug, Popperville residents realizing the error of their ways, and the steam shovel remaining the digging mechanism of choice would be too sappy. Burton, daughter of the first dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, certainly saw a lot of technological advancement before her death in 1968. Other books she authored and illustrated - Choo Choo, The Little House, Maybelle the Cable Car, Katy and the Big Snow, among others - use unusual heroes to reflect a theme of progress. They also remind readers not to lose sight of simpler times and machines that paved the way. Perhaps Burton was asking young readers to find a way for progress without demolishing the past in the process. In this age of computers and Y2K fears, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel reminds us to proceed with heart.
The cellar is dug, by the way. And, though Mary Anne must retire from her steam shoveling, Burton does provide everyone with a happy ending. Don't miss Houghton Mifflin's special anniversary editions, available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and Spanish.
Jamie McAlister is the assistant editor of Port News and father of Alexandra, 1, and Jack, one month. Copyright 1999 BookPage Reviews