Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel:  0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story: 2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point

This is another one of those profoundly American books, with the kind of nostalgia for old machinery and that inevitable “hard work wins in the end” message. I’m always a bit torn by these ones – on the one hand, I’m not convinced that things actually were ‘better in the old days’ and the nostalgia about steam engines and old timey gadgets kind of passes me by a bit. But I can’t really fault encouraging kids to work hard and believe in themselves either.

In brief, Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel Mary becomes obsolete because there is better faster stronger machinery out there so they go find one last gig, which they use to prove that she’s still got it. Then in the end, once she’s proved herself, she is repurposed as a boiler, and Mike becomes a janitor and everyone lives happily ever after. Which is a mixed ending at best.

Having said all that, kids sure do dig stories about machines, and C liked it well enough. It is pretty well written, and fairly fun to read out loud, and the pictures are kinda neat, if a little dated. (Unsurprising given it was published in 1939.) Also given when it was published, there’s nothing too archaic about the ideologies. It’s not a bad little book. It didn’t blow me away, but I’d have no real issue putting it in the rotation.

I’ve spoken about my ambivalence about the “work hard to succeed, up by your bootstraps” thing before. I think in essence it’s not a terrible thing to teach kids, but I also think that it is a little outdated in the modern world where things just don’t really work that way any more, and being innovative and creative is arguably at least as important as just being a solid hard worker.

Still, not a bad little book.

What do you think? Are you familiar with Mike and his Mary? Are you susceptible to the whole steam nostalgia thing? What’s your favourite ‘sentient machinery’ story?

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