"I like good strong words that mean something."- Louisa May Alcott
Even if it can’t be done, do it anyway
Posted on June 20, 2017 @ 10:41 am by

Anyone who’s been around little kids has a special place in their heart for the word “more!” How many of you have sang “The Wheels on the Bus” so many times that you thought your own wheels would come off?

In our house, it was a video based on the book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. We can’t remember how the video (yes, a VHS) arrived at our house, although we suspect a grandparent. All we know for sure, as a toddler Wesley was pretty much addicted to industrial vehicles. Mike Mulligan was added to the pile of truck videos, and then it was played once, then twice, then three times…you get the idea. We listened to that video night and day.

Based on the book published during the depression, the story is brilliant. Without judgement or bitterness, it covers themes we all recognize: facing change, rejection, growing older, failure, imperfection, naysayers and critics, as well as the power of perseverance, enthusiasm, a cheer leading team, ingenuity, kindness and acceptance.

The story by author and illustrator, Virginia Lee Burton,  is told in the video with a wonderful song track:

Mike Mulligan operates a steam shovel, basically a large backhoe powered by steam. The steam shovel is named Mary Anne. We’re first told how Mike and Mary Anne were heroes, helping to excavate everything from canals and mountain tunnels to deep cellars for city skyscrapers.

But change is afoot. Mary Anne and others like her are being replaced by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels.”

“We’re going to take your jobs away!” sing the new modern machines, with a bit more glee than is comfortable (at least for the adults watching the video). Then signs are posted at construction sites, “No Steam Shovels Wanted!”

Mike fears for himself but also knows that being out of work means that Mary Anne will rust and fall apart. Tearfully he sings, “No one wants us, no one needs us any more,”

But Mike and Mary Anne don’t give up. After travelling the countryside in search of work, they arrive in the town of Popperville and make a bid to dig a cellar for the new town hall. They promise the town that if they can’t dig the cellar in just one day they won’t accept payment.

No one thinks it is possible (even Mike has his doubts). One man is particularly cynical. But led by a little boy, the entire town comes out to watch. Together, everyone builds enthusiasm for the project. Mike comments, “We always work faster and better when someone is watching us.”

Before long, the impossible seems possible.

“A cellar in a day,” they all sing, “Even if it can’t be done, do it anyway.”

And of course, the cellar is completed in the day. But with one catch. Mike has worked so fast and so diligently that he didn’t figured out how to get out of the cellar now that it is built.


Everyone talks at once (of course). Then a suggestion is made that the steam shovel be converted to a furnace. Now Mary Anne can stay put and Mike can become the janitor. He accepts the change in his career gracefully knowing that he is needed.

Mike now eats a pie every day for the rest of his life, or at least we assume this is the case because Mrs. McGillicuddy takes him hot apple pie every day. And we’re reminded that “…when you go to Popperille, be sure to go down in the cellar of the new town hall. There they are, Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne….. Mike rocking in his chair smoking his pipe, and Mary Anne beside him, warming up the meetings in the new town hall.”

The story isn’t deep philosophy. But as a family, its message had an impact on each of us whether we wanted it to or not (that’s what happens when you hear something over and over again.)

A week ago when celebrating Father’s Day, we all watched the video again at the insistence of Wesley’s big sister, Sarah. It’s now available online. And yes, we all sang the words of every song.

Leave a Comment

  • Comment
  • Name
  • Email
  • Website

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.