Fixing a Hole


It still hits me in the gut, decades later. And—like Mike Mulligan and his cherished Mary Anne—it, too, made me VERY SAD.FixHole1

No children’s story affected me more than Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a picture book first published in 1939, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton. It was one of my first books, along with Mom’s childhood picture book Peculiar Penguins (pictured with toddler me at bottom left), published in 1934. A Walt Disney “Silly Symphonies” edition, Penguins was my first “hand-me-down” story. Peter Penguin’s love for Polly, and his heroic battle to save their penguin community from a ferocious shark, delighted me.

But Mike and Mary Anne really got under my skin.

Mike loved Mary Anne, his steam shovel. He took care of her. For years they worked together, digging the world’s canals, highways, airports, and even railways through mountainsides. They dug the cellars of tall skyscrapers, working faster and better with every passerby who stopped to watch them. Mike Mulligan “always said that [Mary Anne] could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure” that that was true.

Please make note of that uncertainty, because it pays off later.

Then, as often happens in life, one day everything changed. The old steam shovels were junked in favor of more powerful electric and diesel models, leaving no work for Mike and Mary Anne. And Mike could never just trash Mary Anne—he took care of her and she took care of him.

FixHole2Rather than mourn their fate, they learn that the remote town of Popperville needed a town hall. Now Mike and Mary Anne could show their mettle! They’d go to Popperville and prove they could dig the new town hall cellar in a single day, even though they’d never done it before.

As the sun rose the day digging commenced, a little boy came along to watch. “We always work faster and better when someone is watching us,” Mike Mulligan tells him. Soon everyone in Popperville—as well as neighboring Bangerville, Bopperville, Kipperville and Kopperville—comes to watch, curious to see if the duo will finish by sundown.

When the smoke finally cleared, Mike and Mary Anne had made good on their promise, but … they were completely dug in! As a young reader, I still recall the push-pull emotions: “Great! Wait! This is a problem!” How would they fix it?

It was then that the little boy spoke up.FixHole3

“Why not leave Mary Anne in the cellar,” he says. “Let her be the furnace for the new town hall and let Mike Mulligan be the janitor.” Mary Anne would be spared the junk heap, Mike could still care for Mary Anne, and Popperville would get a cozy, warm, new town hall for the people to meet in.

Even mean ol’ Henry B. Swap, the town hall project’s selectman—who’d doubted Mike and Mary Anne from the start—would spend “most of his time in the cellar of the new town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.”

And me? I wasn’t feeling so sad after all. Heck, I could’ve been that little boy.

My beautiful pictureRereading Mike Mulligan now, at the start of the 21st century, it occurs to me the tools that built the previous century may’ve become outmoded, but they’re hardly useless.

What was once Mary Anne’s sole skill—digging—could be repurposed, using the thing that lay at the very heart of her being—her steam engine.

And perhaps Mike Mulligan’s hesitancy about their ability to dig a hole in a day wasn’t a roadblock to success, but a necessary starting point.

Earlier this spring I worked at a temporary onsite gig that employed mostly laid-off, out-of-work boomers and retirees. Anxious displacement clearly showed on their faces. Worry about the economic downturn of the past five years had left them exasperated and frayed. Every day at that job was like a depressing walk through a rusted junk heap of discarded steam engines.

What will it take to move us beyond all this disruption and confusion, where we might find our own Popperville town hall cellar?

And will this sad story have a happy ending, too?

~ by completelyinthedark on September 6, 2013.

4 Responses to “Fixing a Hole”

  1. I remember that book! What a wonderful post with a great message! I’ll be sharing this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of my favorite stories as a kid too, great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Completely in the Dark and commented:

    A CITD first! Confounded by new post after multiple drafts, so putting it aside and reposting this piece. Happy Valentine’s Day, cats!


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