An Amputee’s Legs and a Steam Shovel’s Arms

(I wrote the following Guest Book Review for Professor Storytime, a blog by writer, reviewer, and teacher Karyn Tunks)

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton used to fill me with wonder and fuel my imagination. I thought I was over the book, you know, been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. I was wrong. Even now, the story brings back memories, conjures the imagination, and sparks my creativity.

One of the best parts of the book is the diagram of the steam shovel with her name, “Mary Anne,” emblazoned on the “boom.” The “dipper,” or bucket, is labeled from top to bottom as “teeth,” “dipper,” and “tongue.” Mike and Mary Anne are the best digging duo the city has ever seen. They scoop earth and “finish the corner neat and square.”

Mary Anne wears her personification on her dipper, with subtle human eyes, smiling mouth, big eyelashes, and even tears. Mary Anne’s dipper has fabulous facial expressions that match the action on the page, from grimaces and grins, to batting eyelashes, closed mouthfuls of dirt, and mouth agape as dirt drops in brown clouds to the ground.

Burton’s sweeping brush stroke illustrations, in the mind of a seven year old’s imagination, move on the page as the shifting boom billows white steam and the black puffs from the “smokestack” blot the sky.

As a congenital amputee, my prosthetic leg has characteristics similar to Mary Anne. The leg is a lever, or simple machine and built of manmade materials: metal, plastic, fiberglass, and wood. My motion with a prosthesis, while not machine-like, is certainly awkward, and my gait looked a lot like Mary Anne’s swinging arm.

Eventually, technology catches Mary Anne, and she and Mike are overtaken by more efficient gas and diesel shovels. So Mary Anne and Mike’s journey takes them from urban to rural areas, while my trip with Mom to Shriners Hospital took me in the opposite direction. Types of communities, according to my wife Susan, are still something second graders learn. (I’m writing this in her classroom, which has a copy of Mike Mulligan and More. She teaches at Daphne East Elementary, but this is summer, and she’s in a lesson planning meeting with her fellow second grade teachers.)

Mike and Mary Anne are challenged to complete a dig in less than a day in the town of Popperville. Once the digging begins, we read Burton’s onomatopoeia as her words match the sounds and motions of Mary Anne working at great speeds to meet the challenge. “Bing! Bang! Crash! Slam!” This reminded me of my mom and dad who told me “not to hop in the house,” and wear my leg or use my “sticks,” or crutches. “A herd of elephants,” is what dad said I sounded like when hopping around. He warned me, “One of these days you’re going to go through the floor!” The prosthesis made other noises, like Mary Anne’s shovel.  A screw loose “click,” a rubbing “squeak,” a weight bearing “clack,” all combined in a magical simple machine symphony.

Like the labeled parts of Mary Anne on the inside pages, it was also important for me to understand how things worked and to have labels, or definitions for my human and machine parts. How my prosthesis stayed on, and how my prosthetist used machines and materials to make a comfortable socket were things I wanted, and needed, to know.

Back then, prosthetists would often tell my mom and I that I didn’t need an artificial leg.

“He’d walk in a flower pot if we gave him one,” I heard Mr. Williams say more than once.

That’s where mom got the idea. I remember her threatening to make a flower pot or a planter out of an old leg that I had outgrown. She and I did a lot of brainstorminng about how to do it, but the foot always posed a problem, so we never made one.

Mike and Mary Anne do their jobs well. Too well, in fact, as they dig themselves a hole so deep they can’t get out. A classic dilemma, and one we’ve all experienced as children and adults. I am not a golfer, but  Mike Mulligan gets a mulligan, a do-over. He and his steam shovel get a second chance in Popperville.

The best authors engage our imaginations as we empathize and identify with their characters. I’m not Mike Mulligan, the little boy standing over the hole, or even Dickie Birkenbush, the author’s neighbor credited in the book with the solution to the problem.

I’m Mary Anne! Don’t let her name fool you. Mary Anne’s a girl who loves to get dirty digging in the dirt. She’s a boy’s girl. The kind of girl that would go outside and join a game of pickle, ride a bike through the middle of a deep puddle, talk Red Sox baseball, or “play cars” using real Matchboxes in my imaginary town beside the driveway on Nanumet Drive.

Today, Burton’s Mary Anne is an inspiration to readers and writers and an example of our human ingenuity. When people have something that no longer works as it was intended, it can be repurposed to make something new. It’s called upcycling, but I like to think of it as a work of art, just like my favorite children’s book, written in 1939.

I take Mary Anne down from the shelf every once in a while. Susan and I are child free, but we still read children’s books, often aloud, to each other. (The Plot Chickens, by Mary Jane and Herm Auch is the latest we recommend.) There is no higher praise for literature then putting it into new hands, so I gave the book to my co-worker Laura to add to her baby’s library. Rereading it again to write this review, I found some wonderful memories of dad, mom, Mary Anne, and myself. I’m continually amazed at how reading fills our imaginations, inspires learning, and shapes our identity no matter our age.

This is not the end, check out my upcycled leg!

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(Be sure and and click on the link below to check out Karyn’s post, which includes illustrations from the book and an animated video, adapted and narrated by Robert Klein.)

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