It might seem odd to review a children’s book first published in 1939. I read it as a kid, and for some reason it stayed with me. Actually I know the reason. The story is essentially a nice one, but the last three pages of this book reveal a bizarre ending that troubles and haunts me to this day.
What? You ask. A harmless kids’ book? Yes. I will explain.
For those who have not read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (spoilers ahead) it’s the story of Mike, a man who operates a huge an outdated piece of machinery called a steam shovel. But she has a name, and it’s Mary Anne. The shovel has a face with vaguely feminine eyes, does not speak, and towers over her partner.
The pair have had a long partnership digging all manner of canals, roads, foundations and airports, and is now seen scouring the countryside in search of work. But times have changed in the earth moving biz, and everyone wants the newfangled gas, electric and diesel machines to dish the dirt.
“No Steam Shovels Wanted” reads one sign, with sad-faced Mike and Mary Anne turning away from yet another worksite.
Finally, Mike hears of a opportunity through the excavation pipeline. The town of Popperville is building a new town hall, which means it needs a cellar. Mike and Mary Anne to the rescue!
Not so fast, says the meanest town selectman, Henry B. Swap. But a deal is worked out; if Mike and his steam shovel can do the job in just one day, Mike gets paid. If it doesn’t, he doesn’t. Boo, hiss, Henry B. Swap.
Mike and Mary Anne are willing, though, and with the entire town and several other towns watching, they git-er-done by sunset. Cheers of relief sweep across the crowds until a small, blonde boy notices something: Mike has neglected to build an exit ramp out of his deep, freshly made hole. He and Mary Anne are stuck, their payment forfeited.
The onlookers scratch their heads and wonder what to do, when the boy speaks up again. Leave ’em both down there and build the town hall over them. Mike can be the new building’s janitor, and Mary Anne can be turned into a furnace.
Everyone present, including Mike, thinks this is a fine idea. Nobody asks Mary Anne, but her bland smile suggests her assent. The words and pictures from here paint a macabre picture; a man and his machine becoming trapped in a prison of their own making. Did Mary Anne really understand this devil’s deal, or only after it was too late?
I have zero sympathy for Mike. He has two good legs and (I assume) can leave the basement at any time. But Mary Anne is stuck. She can’t go for coffee, smell the wildflowers, or ramble the hilly countryside. All she can do is sit in her musty dungeon, year after year, with Mike, whose job duties seem to consist of pipe-smoking in a chair and telling stories to the occasional visitor.
In my mind they are still down there, forgotten, cobwebbed, frozen in time. Mike who? Mary Anne who? It’s not too late, Mary Anne! Get out, get out while you can!