I first heard of Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War in grad school. I read it because a fellow student spoke with absolute glee about it. I’ve not heard a book recommended with such laughter and vigor before or since. And I fell into the book just as she insisted I would. Fell, I tell you. Lost my head, really.
My kids did, too. I handed it to them with a casual, “It’s really good and I think you’ll like it…” sort of recommendation. I wanted to see if they would, as I did, google “pushcart war” to see when this had happened and why we didn’t know more about it. They did. Well, the little one said, “Wait…did this really happen?!”
Apparently, we each read over the dates of the forward and the author’s introduction. Both are dated in the year 2036, which would’ve been a clue, of course…but so absorbed were we in the “reporting” of the Pushcart War—in the struggle, the unfair tactics and politics of the truckers, and the plight of the pushcart vendors—that we missed the clues, I guess.
When The Pushcart War was published in 1964, it was set in New York City in 1976. When it was republished in 1974, it was set in 1986. The 1985 edition is set in 1996—always the not-so-distant future, in other words. When the New York Review Children’s Collection published the 50th anniversary edition a couple of years ago, the date changed to 2026 (this is the edition I have). This book has had political resonance in each of the eras in which it has published and republished, and the plight of the pushcart vendors certainly still rings True, hilariously and poignantly, today.
The story could be categorized as “narrative journalism,” published ten years after the events of the war. The forward, written by one Professor Lyman Cumberly of New York University says “…it is very important to the peace of the world that we understand how wars begin….” The Pushcart War shows us. Kids understand the issue at hand—the big trucking companies want the roads cleared for trucks and only trucks. The trucking industry cites the importance of deliveries being on time, the general agreement that traffic is awful etc. The pushcarts—the little guys—are the first target.
But they fight back! And the fight is glorious and one that anyone who has ever been bullied or witnessed bullying or has bullied will understand. There’s The Daffodil Massacre, which starts it all off, and then we’re quickly introduced to Morris the Florist, and Frank the Flower, and Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King. Movie star, Wanda Gambling, sees the danger signs—don’t we all? I mean, the taxi drivers grew cautious in their driving!—and pretty soon there are famous speeches and secret meetings, triggering words and secret weapons. Then there’s an all out War. It’s basically David and Goliath all over again.
But there’s something about the way it’s written—I guess it’s the “narrative journalism” tone—before you know it, you’re searching Wikipedia to get the details nailed down.
If I were a teacher of fourth graders, I’d read a chapter of this timeless classic every day. And I’d notice, and ponder, as I did and do, that this book, a story for children, has only the briefest mention of any kids. The main characters are entirely adults.
Fascinating, don’t you think?