At first, I wasn’t so sure I liked Burton’s conclusions—an apparent knee-jerk dislike of novel technologies—and what these books might be teaching my daughter about these matters. But I’ve since realized that these stories actually highlight a rather fundamental bias that most people have when it comes to viewing technology.
The changes depicted in these books are part of grander trends in the decades surrounding their publication, and broadly are the byproducts of the Industrial Revolution, from mechanization and urbanization to changes in energy sources. In Mike Mulligan, inexorable technological progress renders Mary Anne an outdated machine, superseded by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels.” (Note that “Diesel” is capitalized, presumably because this was still when it was the surname of engineer Rudolf Diesel.) But Mike Mulligan simply can’t bear to get rid of his beloved Mary Anne, even when the rest of the steam shovels are being discarded. He’s not a technophobe; the steam shovel once was quite cutting-edge itself, and he prides himself on knowing how to use it well. Yet he’s so attached that he fails to adapt.
Contrast this with The Little House. Published in 1942, three years after Mike Mulligan, the book is about a charming house built many years earlier far out in the country. Over the years, the house’s idyllic location is intruded upon by cars and other houses, and eventually, she is surrounded by the city that was once far-off. She is flanked by skyscrapers. Subway trains run below her, elevated trains above. She is no longer even able to see the stars and moon at night. In the end, the Little House is spotted by the granddaughter of a woman who grew up in the house. The woman relocates her back to the countryside, far from the city, where the Little House once again feels she belongs.
The intended message of The Little House is that progress is far from a good thing. The Little House is unhappy with the changes that progress has wrought around her, and the city’s fast pace, distance from nature, and dinginess are portrayed as something bad once she has experienced them. Mike Mulligan, meanwhile, paints a more nuanced picture of progress, one specifically of obsolescence in the face of newer technology, rather than the inherent evils of any technological change at all. Mike Mulligan is a fan of technology, but he simply can’t give up his steam shovel (and perhaps is unwilling to learn a new skill). Instead, after one last use of his old technology, he changes professions—to the town hall janitor—and is content.
Intriguingly, one of the earliest signs of change in The Little House is a steam shovel digging a paved road for faster automobiles to go by. As my daughter and I noted, this harbinger of change sure looks a lot like Mike Mulligan’s Mary Anne. The steam shovel’s appearance underscores a subtle irony that runs throughout the book. In the end, the only way that the Little House can return to the country is by being jacked up and moved on a flatbed and pulled by a truck out of the city. It’s precisely technological advances that allow for her to return to her rural roots.