Pushcart WarThe Pushcart War
by Jean Merrill

This is an oldie-but-goodie, a great favorite of my childhood. I remember reading it aloud with my sister during a backyard campout one summer night, shooing away the moths and mosquitoes flitting between the flashlight bulb and the page. It’s short enough to read the entire thing in an evening, and it’s pure pleasure, taking me back to the cheerful reading days of girlhood.

It’s the story of how the New York City pushcart peddlers realized that they were being bullied out of their traditional place in city life by the growth of modern traffic, especially by the increasing size and aggressiveness of mammoth trucks. The pushcarts are taking the blame for the city’s traffic ills, charged with being slow and obstructive. How are the pushcart peddlers to make the public see that the trucks, not the pushcarts, are the cause of the traffic jams?

The underdogs launch a clever war of public relations on the behemoths. Their chosen weapon — a pea-shooter whose peas have been spiked with pins. Their targets — the tires of the trucks. When hundreds of disabled trucks have tied up the city’s traffic, while hundreds of pushcarts are merrily weaving through the traffic jams to do business as usual, it seems that the war is won. But the truckers still have a few dirty tricks up their sleeves, and the story has quite a few twists and turns before the satisfying conclusion.

It’s always good rousing fun to read a story in which merry little underdogs beat their giant enemies with cleverness and perseverance. It’s even better when the story has a good heart and a warm kindness all through it. The truck drivers are mostly ordinary Joes who don’t mean to do any harm, just trying to make a living, and simply blind to the fact that they are part of the problem. Many of them come to realize that the peddlers are making a valid point, and to even laugh at themselves. The two true baddies in the story — the power-hungry trucking tycoon Louie Livergreen and the violent-tempered road rage trucker Albert P. Mack — are the exceptions.

It’s easy to become fond of the other characters — the feisty old apple peddler General Anna and the Pushcart King Maxie Hammerman, the inept comic villain Big Moe and the beleaguered Police Commissioner, movie star Wanda Gambling and the besieged Mr. and Mrs. Posey in their pea packaging plant. The book is a comedy, so the characters are quick light sketches without personal depth, but all are lively and funny.

In a book with an admittedly silly plot and simple characters, there must be something to account for my delight in this story as a child, and for the fact that it still can make me smile today. The sense that it’s a kind of fantastic fable, that’s part of it. Obviously it’s a fable about war, disguised as comic slapstick. It begins with a mock “Foreword by Professor Lyman Cumberly of New York University, author of The Large Object Theory of History” —

It is very important to the peace of the world that we understand how wars begin. Unfortunately, most of our modern wars are too big for the average person even to begin to understand. They take place on five continents at once. One has to study geography for twenty years just to locate the battlefields. They involve hundreds of armies, thousands of officers, millions of soldiers, and weapons so complicated that even the generals do not understand how they work. The extraordinary thing about the Pushcart War is that a child of six will grasp at once precisely how the weapons worked. The Pushcart War is the only recent war of which this can be said. The result is that we have been having more and more wars simply because the whole procedure is so complicated that peace-loving people give up trying to understand what is going on.

Beneath all the silliness, there are issues worth thinking about. The pushcart peddlers are trying their best to fight a just war, and in their own way they address many issues that are worth thinking about. The pacifist Mr. Jerusalem raises the thorny question of whether it is right to shoot pins into the tires of truck drivers who have never personally harmed him. “There are not troubles enough in the world? Why should I make more?” he wonders. The swaggering hot dog peddler Harry must be reined in by the other peddlers when he takes aim, not at tires, but at people. Threatening to confiscate his pea-shooter, General Anna warns him firmly, “We are not shooting at innocent people. That will only make trouble.” War is not presented as a thing admirable or glorious in itself, but as a reluctant choice that may sometimes be forced upon people who are under such pressure that they see no other option. But as the peddlers insist, if a war is to be fought at all, it must be a last resort, and it must do as little harm as possible.

When the pea-shooter campaign must be called off, after the arrest of Frank the flower peddler and the raid on Posey’s Pea Plant, the pushcart peddlers are forbidden to carry their weapons on the streets under penalty of law. They turn to the tactics of protest, a confrontational march through the streets, a demonstration to say “We are still here”, abiding by the law while simultaneously challenging it. When this book was written, in 1964, the use of public demonstration was a tactic at the forefront of the civil rights movement, from lunch counters to bus stations, and only a year later would come the great march from Selma to Montgomery. The danger faced by the people who marched in real-life protests was reflected in the children’s book, as Mack the trucker deliberately drives his rig head-on into the marching peddlers. The many real-life civil rights protesters who went willingly to jail for the cause also had their counterpart in this book, as Frank goes cheerfully to jail with his head held high, taking the rap for 18,000 flat tires so that the other peddlers will be free to carry on the fight.

So did a a silly slapstick children’s book sow seeds of serious real-life issues in my young thoughts, all the while making me laugh. Good enough reason to revisit this little story once in a while.