Thu. May 24
The Power of Pushcarts
Jean Merrill’s 1964 children’s novel The Pushcart War is a reminder that “old-fashioned” doesn’t have to mean stodgy. This story of a (mostly nonviolent) “war” between pushcarts and trucks has colorful mayhem for the kids and surprisingly prescient satire for the adults—the role of the media in the war, especially, feels very up-to-date. It’s a postcard from Old New York, a global city made up of a hundred interlocking little villages, populated by people with names like Frank the Flower and Old Anna: a city of Morrises and Solomons. This is the New York of George Selden’s charming animal tale Irma and Jerry, or the American stories from Deborah Brodie’s Jewish children’s collection, Stories My Grandfather Should Have Told Me. Merrill creates a ramshackle and rambunctious world, homemade and downmarket, where the heroes are cleaning women taking night classes and men who sleep in public parks. It’s easy to imagine an early Muppet movie taking place in this world.
This is a world in which even misbehavior has rules and Boy Scout-style oaths, a world of hard work and loyalty to parents. There’s a lot of cheerful lawbreaking in this book—the pushcart peddlers, having been physically attacked due to a secret plan on the part of the trucking companies, fight back by flattening truck tires with “pea-pins” and, when this fails, hold a traffic-stopping Peace March. The characters discuss whether or not these tactics are really justified (and the skeptical, peace-loving Mr. Jerusalem becomes one of the moral centers of the book), but everything is presented in a low-consequences zany style rather than a more realistic or serious one. Again, a Muppet movie is probably the best comparison.
There is one scene toward the very end, in which regular New Yorkers exhilarated by the end of the “war” pelt innocent truck drivers with cantaloupes, which might sway too far in the direction of comedy violence, more because of the blanket condemnation of the truckers—who are just working men themselves—than because the consequences are particularly dire. But even this scene is presented without gloating, and the pushcart-peddler heroes themselves don’t take part in it, which helps to separate it from the more thoughtful scenes about peace vs. pea-pins. Overall this is a book about the failure of a nasty plan and the triumph of the little guy.
The book bounces along in a dialogue-heavy, Yiddish-inflected style, with lots of running jokes (everything the trucks transport begins with “P,” from pipe organs to permanent wave machines) and big scoops of sophisticated humor for parents. There’s gentle mimicry of historiography, since the book is presented like an authoritative history of a real war, and somewhat less-gentle satire on the collusion of government and big business. The Pushcart War parodies various serious issues without ever feeling serious itself; it’s a confection, and a love letter to a great city, a kiss blown backward into the past.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.