BY ADAM BLOCH
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I moved back to New York City in 2007 after an absence of five years. Shortly after my arrival, during one particularly bad insomniac fugue, I noticed The Pushcart War sitting forgotten on a distant shelf in my room, a relic of my elementary school reading days. I devoured it anew in about two hours. A few months ago, I read it again. I loved this book when I first read it in fourth grade, I loved it in 2007 and I love it now.
Its enduring appeal has much to do with what it means to me as a New Yorker. The Pushcart War is one of the quintessential New York books in children’s literature, on a par with Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square, doing for my hometown what Madeline does for Paris and Make Way for Ducklings does for Boston. It meant a lot to a 9-year-old just beginning to make sense of the city’s stew of sights and experiences and also to a 22-year-old finding that his city had changed a lot during an extended absence.
The New York that Jean Merrill presents is one easily familiar to its inhabitants, both in 1964 when it was originally published and even now. It is a polyglot, multicultural city, a bustling conurbation filled with colorful characters and encounters, many based at real locations around Manhattan, from the Upper West Side to Little Italy. It’s a place filled with cranks and raconteurs and folks with names like Morris the Florist, Harry the Hot Dog, Moe Mammoth, General Anna, Papa Peretz, Harry the Hot Dog and Mr. Jerusalem.
The dialogue is flawlessly infected by New Yorkese. “Tomatoes all over the street, and twenty pushcart peddlers yelling at the truck driver, and picking up broken tomatoes and throwing them at him. What kind of working conditions are those?” the aforementioned Moe Mammoth says to a journalist early in the book, and one can almost heart the indignant Brooklyn snarl in his voice. The same goes for the Pushcart King, Maxie Hammerman, whose put-upon sense of aggrieved injury feels like the constant kvetching of an old Yiddish grandpa. “Why not?” he asks at one point. “In my line I have to know a lot of people. Should I be the Pushcart King for nothing?”
So the city is an excitable, frenzied, at times bilious environment, but for the most part friendship and politeness rule the day, which somehow contrasts comfortably with the titular war and the general brash nature of New York. But what exactly is this war, anyway, and what is it doing in a children’s book? Without the plot, The Pushcart War is simply a nicely observed urban study done with colorful touches for children. The war tosses on a giant dollop of irony and makes the whole recipe a delicious mix of the kid lit and worldly themes—in other words, a serious satire for the elementary school set.
Consider the first chapter’s opening paragraph (after a faux preface by Merrill introducing the story as a true one and her book as a work of history): “The Pushcart War started on the afternoon of March 15, 1986, when a truck ran down a pushcart belonging to a flower peddler. Daffodils were scattered all over the street. The pushcart was flattened, and the owner of the pushcart was pitched headfirst into a pickle barrel.”
(Despite being published in 1964, this book was not set in the future. The dates are updated with every new printing by the publisher, perhaps to give children a sense of the recent past.)
Chapter titles include “The Pea Shooter Campaign – Phase 1,” “The Pea Blockade,” “The Barricade at Posey’s Plant” and “The Battle of Bleecker Street.” The martial tone of the book, in other words, is unmistakable. The story concerns a fight for the streets and soul of New York City between the evil trucking companies that want to hog the streets and the humble pushcart merchants who represent thrift, industry and good citizenship. The satire, though I didn’t recognize it while reading The Pushcart War in fourth grade, is of the Vietnam War, with the conflict between the imperial thugs and the feisty guerillas transposed to a local setting. Throw in a corrupt government and snide depictions of politicians (the mayor, at one point, substitutes a “potato platform“ for his original “peanut butter platform“ in order to get reelected), and the result could be quite an anarchic stew.
This could be a scenario for overwrought moralizing and hackneyed prose, but Merrill keeps the tone light and the antics convivial. Though weapons are used and violence witnessed, there are no casualties and few major injuries. This is a book, after all, with all sorts of silliness, where kids start nicknaming each daffodil and hyacinth after the arrest of Frank the Flower; the President of the United States slyly tells a journalist, “Don’t be a truck”; a woman smuggles a message into prison that asks, “How is the blister on your thumb?”; the war’s final battle turns into a cantaloupe-throwing frenzy; and, of course, a man get pitched into pickle barrels.
It’s a lot of fun, and it feels just like New York.