Digging Deep with Mike Mulligan

With one exception (The Poky Little Puppy), every book I have chosen for Sad Puppies Review Books is one that I have strong enough memories of that I can thresh out the basic idea for the review and then go look at some combination of Wikipedia, Amazon, and YouTube to verify the details I was hazy about. If I know a book well enough that I can call its story to mind and come up with some angle for my red-pill-popping, reactionary right-wing reviewer to take on it, I use it.

So most of the books I’ve reviewed are ones that were favorites of mine, or favorites of one or many of the children I’ve read books to over the years. The most recent one is a little different, as it was actually a favorite of my father’s. In fact, I associate the book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel so strongly with my father that I almost dedicated the Sad Puppy review of it to him, then thought better of it on the grounds that given the subject matter, it would be easy for someone who doesn’t know him to misunderstand such a dedication.

I didn’t think about Mulligan et al when I was writing the first or second round of SPRB mainly because it wasn’t a huge part of my childhood in the same way that the books I used were, but as I had also exhausted a lot of the more obvious possibilities, last night when I saw that the GoFundMe campaign cleared $150 just before I went to bed, I wound up Googling “classic children’s books” for inspiration, and there it was in the banner of examples that popped up. I was naming the books that caught my eye to Jack, who did not have the same literary upbringing I did and who had never read or heard of many of the stories I know by heart.

He asked me to tell him the story of the titular Mike Mulligan and his equally titular steam shovel, and I did, and he remarked that it seemed to him to be about the importance of not leaving your friends behind.

I think there’s definitely something to that, although it’s such an integral theme that it’s more of an axiom. The alternative never even comes up. When the new power shovels are introduced, Mike never thinks about abandoning his trusty machine. When Mike and Mary Anne dig themselves into a hole they can’t get out of, the story treats them as a unit. Mike can leave any time he wants, but the question is how to get them out. The fact that either they both go or neither one of them does is treated utterly matter-of-factly, not as some foolish stubborn stand taken by Mike. The story’s solution does not actually require that Mike stays, but the version of it where he doesn’t is never proposed.

And so just like that, I had my hook for the review. The sort of men who fuel campaigns like the Sad Puppies and Gamergate will eat up a story like that… when it’s about a bond of friendship between two men. Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel is given a feminine name and personified as female, though, and any kind of story of sacrifice or even mutual support and respect between a man and a woman is cast down as being emasculating feminist propaganda.

When two presumptively straight guys make it clear that they will to the mat for each other every time, when they say things like, “If you want me, you’re going to have to go through him.”, when they make it clear that if it’s the two of them against the world, you should think twice before betting on the world, they… and, frequently everyone else… will eat it up with a spoon. But make one of those characters female, and suddenly she’s a gold digger, she’s an albatross, she’s using him, she’s manipulating him, etc.

Even people who get lumped into the “SJW” side of things will get in on the act under the guise of praising the woman for being “better” or “stronger” than the narrative that shows the man supporting her. Few people in the audience asked why Bucky Barnes even needed to be saved if he’s so great, or why Cap would be willing to tear the team apart to do so. But replace him with a woman… particularly, replace him with a woman of color or most particularly a Black woman… and people who celebrate the Bucky/Steve dynamic whether as an embodiment of masculine love (whether platonic or not) will excoriate the whole thing.

Men who stick by their (implicitly male) friends through thick and thin are seen as being noble. Men who fight and die in futile causes as part of a band of brothers even more so. But put a woman in the mix…

Just think about how many times on a TV show, aimed at people of any age, you’ve seen the lesson aimed at boys that they have to stand by their friends. Think about how often we see the lesson that women should stand by their men. And think about how often the lesson is, “All this, just for a woman?”

The “character” of Mary Anne the steam shovel is only incidentally female. She’s only mildly anthropomorphized in the art and narration, has no lines of dialogue and never acts on her own. She’s female because that’s the way we speak about vehicles and vessels. But for whatever reason, she is presented to the reader as female and Mike Mulligan’s bond of loyalty to her is shown as that of two old friends who rely on each other, and I think that’s important.

Of course, there are people who will look at this and say that I’m reading too much into this, that I shouldn’t be trying to politicize children’s books. But at its core, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is the story of a Depression-era laborer who is pushed out of the job market by changing technologies, and what he does to survive: first by finding a niche that the emerging big players aren’t ready to address, then by working harder and better than they will, and then finally by changing in the face of a changing world.

John Henry, the subject of a similar story, worked himself to death trying to prove that his labor was not made obsolete by a steam-powered device. Mike Mulligan pilots such a device, and its fall into obsolescence in the face of newer machines is what motivates him to work himself up into such a frenzy that he winds up trapped. Whether or not this story was meant to have political meaning, it reflects a reality that is in part political in nature.

Now, critics of this kind of discourse say things like, “But you can read any message you want into a story!” And you know what?

To a point, they’re right.

We could say that Mike Mulligan whitewashes and sanitizes the John Henry fable, by replacing the freed Black man with an Irish laborer, making his Phyrric victory non-fatal, and showing society making a place for him and his steam engine. Or we could say that they’re just different stories in the same mold, and that the author did not necessarily have John Henry in mind at all when she wrote it, that she was merely drawing from the same well.

We could argue that Mike’s final fate being far kinder than John Henry’s shows that society has progressed over the decades, or that it at the very least reflects the author’s optimism that it could do so. Or we could say that Mike’s ability to go the suburbs and win over the town and carve out a life for himself there is emblematic of the growing social capital and access to white privilege of Irish laborers in the early 20th century, something John Henry wouldn’t have had been able to do, if he had been a contemporary of Mike’s also pitting steam power against internal combustion and electric power.

If I say that these arguments all have some value, critics of such critical discourse (the critical-critical, we might call them) would no doubt seize on this as an admission that this kind of examination serves no point except to undermine the value of meaning and truth. If everything is true, then nothing is true, and anything can be true! Subjectivity run amok! Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!

To the critical-critical, the only point of such examination is criticism in the most negative sense, and the only point of criticism is to prove that something is bad or wrong in order to destroy it. If we talk about the socioeconomic reality behind Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, that means we are coming for it, and if we’re not stopped when we come for Mike, then who knows what we’ll come for next?

In a very real sense, I wound up choosing Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel for my next review because of two men whom I know are willing to do the hard work and stand by the women in their life with the same valor and honor that society says men should stand by each other, men for whom sacrificing for their partners is not even seen as a sacrifice or a question. When I compare them to the fearful, fretful men who inspired the content of the review… well, there’s no comparison.