The Pushcart War


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.


The Age of Miracles — a fresh thought

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Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

It’s time for the annual If All Rochester Read the Same Book event. The 2015 choice turns out to be a book that I’ve already read; — in fact, I wrote about it here on this blog in December 2012.  I’m not going to post about it in detail again. But I’ve just done a quick re-read of it, so as to have it fresh in mind when I go to the library lecture later this week. And this time around, the book is mixed in my thoughts with other books I’ve read more recently.

Over at LibriVox, I’ve recently worked on a project about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and another about the Deepwater Horizon Oil SpillAmong my recent library books has been the novel Station Eleven, set in a world devastated by a pandemic, and Curse of the Narrows, a history of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. So many disasters rattling around in my head.

Reading through Age Of Miracles, this time what struck me most were a few brief passing remarks about disasters, and the usual methods of preparing for them and responding to them.

We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closets.  … We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. … But we Californians were no more prepared for this particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.

I remember watching Mr. Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water, as if preparing, it now seems to me, for a disaster much more minor.

The disasters we read about, or see in movies, have a short and finite arc. This thing happens. When it’s over — which is within thus much time — it’s over. Then we get on with cleaning up and starting afresh. Or, in apocalyptic stories, everything is lost, and that’s that, story over. But one way or the other, the outcome is known soon. Hurricane, tsunami, tornado. Earthquake, explosion, massacre. Pandemic, social collapse, end of the world.

But in Age of Miracles, that quick arc of disaster is frustratingly absent. Flashlight batteries and bottled water aren’t needed. There isn’t a day when we wake to find that it’s all over, and we can start rebuilding — or a day when everything comes to a sudden and crashing end. Disconcertingly, in this book, the downward spiral begins imperceptibly and continues indefinitely. If this is a natural disaster, how do we know when it’s finished, when we can return to the stability of “normal”?  If this is the end of the world, it’s not going to finish playing out for a few more generations.  In the meantime, we can’t hurry anxiously to the closing page. What can we do but just keep on living, as enthusiastically and creatively as we ever did before, in the midst of an endlessly drawn-out end.

The end of the world doesn’t let us see it coming. It looks like ordinary daily life, as the years pass, as the decades pass, as the generations pass. But people have to live, somehow, in the meantime. And living well still matters. What is “living well”, though? Maybe it’s simply realizing that the end is never really the end, that each ordinary day since we first began is still going on as it always did, one breath at a time.

Near the end of the book is one paragraph that seems to say it as well as anything. —

We carried on. We persisted even as most of the experts gave us only a few more years to live. We told stories and we fell in love. We fought and we forgave. Some still hoped the world might right itself. Babies continued to be born.

Pepper and Salt

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pepper_and_salt_1405_largePepper and Salt
by Howard Pyle

This latest LibriVox audiobook release is one I’m particularly excited about, because it was a duet between me and my dad. Listening to my dad read aloud has been part of my life for over 50 years. I hope to go on hearing him read aloud for at least a couple of decades yet. It wouldn’t be Christmas in this house without his annual reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

These days, his voice can’t keep going the way it did when he was younger, through chapter after chapter. Poems, though, are still short enough for him to handle without going hoarse. When this project came along, it was simply perfect for us to share. It was an old childhood favorite, bringing back memories of long-ago read-alouds, It had both stories and poems, something for each of us to read. “Made for us, Daddy!” — And off we went!

The old-fashioned poems, with their slightly tongue-in-cheek morals, called out all my dad’s histrionic gusto, his old theatricality. He was certainly channelling the spirit of Vincent Crummles as he read these. Especially the somewhat shocking Tale of An Innocent Little Lamb and Four Wicked Wolves. He crunched that one with a grin.

Far away in distant parts of the country, where we have never seen them, are my dad’s great-grandchildren. Now there’s a way for them to hear his voice, to listen to him read aloud to them, as he used to read to their mother and grandmother, their aunt and great-aunts. There’s a satisfaction in getting this little project out into the world which is deeper than the slightness of the material itself. It’s a little Victorian children’s book, that’s all. But it’s also a link to a long family memory.

One Came Home


One Came HomeOne Came Home
by Amy Timberlake

Every year about this time, the Newbery Award children’s books are announced. This is always my cue to get upstairs into the children’s room again, a place I seem to visit too rarely since my nieces have grown up. I ended up reading two of this year’s books, Paperboy by Vince Vawter and One Came Home by Amy Timberlake. Both were interesting historical novels, but of the two, this is the one I’m writing about, because it’s the one my brain hasn’t yet quite let go of. My head is so full of the wings of millions of passenger pigeons.

The setting is a small town in rural Wisconsin in 1871. The narrator is a 13-year-old girl called Georgie, daughter and granddaughter of the general store keepers. Georgie is a crack shot with her grandfather’s old hunting rifle, a bit of a hoyden, and a born haggler who looks forward to the day when she will be in charge of the family business. She also adores her older sister Agatha, a quiet scholarly girl who longs to go away to college and study what was then called Natural History, though the family has ruled college out of the question. That leaves Agatha chafing and weighing local suitors, while Georgie meddles and interferes.

Then come the passenger pigeons. This is where the book really took flight for me. The story which might have been another nice but ordinary girls’ novel, suddenly turned into something surprising, fascinating, and startling, when the pigeons came to town. I’ve always heard of passenger pigeons, of course. I knew that there were once many of them, and that they were hunted into extinction. But what had before been a bare awareness of dead facts has become very real and alive after reading the vividly evocative descriptions in this book. The birds came by the millions, frightening in their intensity and power, like the birds in a Hitchcock movie scene. Feathers seem so ethereal, yet millions of flapping feathers raise hurricanes, create a living avian storm that can knock people over.

The pigeons seemed so real, not abstractions of history or ecology. They were like all real things, at the same time beautiful, annoying, vulnerable, dangerous, poetic and smelly. They were what they were, beyond judgment or symbolism. When they came to town, they were a bit like one of the plagues, leaving the woods a mess of feathers and bird droppings for miles. They were destructive and voracious. Yet at the same time, they were breathtaking in their individual and collective beauty, and that must have impressed many people who saw them in their glory, even without the awareness of coming extinction as an eye-opener. The book made me see the iridescent clouds of birds, feel the wind of their flight, even as it also made me shrink from their ominous clamoring beaks and the rain of their droppings.

There’s a scene early in the book that stays with me. Everyone has fled indoors as the cloud of birds descends on the town. Even the bold Georgie shrinks from the feathered tempest. Then Georgie watches as Agatha dresses in old clothes and an apron, takes up a parasol, and walks straight into the bird cloud. The birds are parted in their flight, as the flight reshapes itself to avoid this obstruction, wildly circling Agatha as though she were a tree or a fence in their way. And Agatha begins whirling in circles in the midst of the birds, whirling and whirling, in a sort of ecstatic imitation of flight, while Georgie drinks in the vision. Yet when Agatha holds out a hand for Georgie to venture out and join her, Georgie can’t go, frozen where she is by fear of the craziness out there.

Where the passenger pigeons come, the hunters also come. The town makes a killing as the hunters make their own killing. Guns bang away day after day, bringing down multiple birds at one shot. Coopers build barrels to pack preserved birds for shipment to market, storekeepers sell ammunition and food and supplies to the hunters, boarding house keepers pack people in at whatever rates the market will bear. When the frenzy ends, when the pigeons and hunters have gone, the town has an exhausted, picked-over feel. And in the aftermath, Georgie discovers that Agatha is also gone, last seen running away with a wagonload of pigeon hunters.

The story turns back to its original line of plot at this point, as though remembering that there must be some story to tell other than that of the pigeons. Georgie blames herself for her sister’s flight, as she had meddled in Agatha’s love life. Then the sheriff returns to town with a body, possible to identify only by its hair color and clothing. But that’s enough for almost everyone to say, “It’s Agatha”. All except Georgie, who refuses to accept that her sister is dead. Determined to find out where Agatha has gone, Georgie runs away herself, with a stubborn mule for transportation, grandfather’s Springfield rifle for protection, and one of Agatha’s old beaux for a guide. Her plan is to follow the trail Agatha took with the pigeon hunters, asking questions until she finds her sister.

Georgie’s subsequent adventures include an eye-to-eye showdown with a mountain lion, a shootout with a counterfeiting gang, and the mystery of another runaway girl with red hair. In the end, she returns home, having done some growing-up along the way. The way the various plot points finally shake out is not too surprising. Agatha has run away to college. The other missing girl is the body that had been buried as Agatha. The counterfeiting gang is broken up. Georgie attends her grandfather’s funeral and settles down to help run the family general store. News arrives of dreadful fires in the north woods of Wisconsin, the same day as a big fire in Chicago. The Wisconsin fire survivors drift through Georgie’s town, and the townsfolk reach out to help them. The story settles quietly to its end.

But the birds — they stay with me. After I finished reading One Came Home, I went looking for more information about the passenger pigeons.  I stumbled onto a book written in 1907 by William Mershon, entitled simply The Passenger Pigeon. It was writtten over 35 years after the great pigeon flight of 1871 described in the children’s novel. By the time Mershon wrote, the pigeons were rarely sighted, and fears for their future were driving people to question what had been done. How could such a plentiful bird become so rare in barely a generation? I’ve already put “dibs” on the Mershon book at LibriVox. As soon as my current two projects are cleared off my plate, I’m going to read about the passenger pigeons next.

Meanwhile, I open One Came Home again, before I take it back to the library, and browse the chapters describing the pigeons.

Birds, birds, birds — a wing, an eye, a beak — they flew so fast I couldn’t pick out one bird. The sky was a feathered fabric weaving itself in and out, unraveling before my eyes. I felt dizzy. I could barely breathe. … Have you ever seen how iron filings circle a magnet? That was what this looked like. Except it wasn’t still and dead like iron; it was rushing, pulsing, and made of feathers, pumping hearts, and lungfuls of air.

I’m listening to wind and snow outside the house tonight, but it sounds like a whirl of birds in my imagination.

The Wonder Clock

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Wonder ClockThe Wonder Clock
by Howard Pyle

When I was a girl, the Howard Pyle folktale books were all favorites of mine.  Pyle’s peasant Robin Hood gave me a sturdy whiff of dusty feet walking dirt roads with street-corner ballads for common people like me, rather than the swashy knightly romances of other versions. I read that book so often that I could instantly flip the book open to my favorite parts. Then there were Pyle’s other books, Otto of the Silver Hand, The Book of Pirates, and of course the two folk-tale books, Pepper and Salt and The Wonder Clock. These last two had a particular nostalgia for me, because Grandma had read these stories to me when I was little, and I in turn read them to her years later. My taste in fairy tales had always been strongly influenced by the Polish and Russian stories that ran in our family. Perrault’s elegant bewigged palace nobles and Disney’s American teenager princesses just couldn’t get under my skin as well as the bears and goosegirls and soldiers and woodcutters and Baba Yaga witches. I liked Pyle’s fairytale story choices because they came from that same earthy background.

So, when I saw that LibriVox was arranging a group recording of The Wonder Clock, I had to jump right on board. By the time we were finished, I had recorded eight of the twenty-four stories in this book, and had myself a fine old time doing it. Usually when I’m recording for LV, I try to choose a time when I’m by myself, so I don’t have to keep stopping for noises like coughs and rustles of movement by other people moving around the room. But for The Wonder Clock, I did most of my recording when my dad was nearby, because there’s not half as much fun in these stories unless they’re shared aloud with someone.

If you’d like to sit back and enjoy being read aloud to, you may simply click on this audio link and enjoy —

[archiveorg wonderclock_1309_librivox&playlist=1 width=500 height=400 frameborder=0 webkitallowfullscreen=true mozallowfullscreen=true allowfullscreen]

If you want to download the audiobook and save it for later, here’s the link to the LibriVox audiobook version —  The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle. And because a Pyle book is only half as enjoyable without the pictures, here’s a link to a free online text of the original book, complete with all the delicious Pyle line drawings — Text of The Wonder Clock with Howard Pyle’s illustrations .

What sort of stories will you find here? Well, “How the Good Gifts Were Used By Two” is a classic story of misused wishes. Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher are two very down-to-earth saints, walking through the world on foot, staying at whatever house makes them welcome. To those who play host to these visitors, a magical blessing is given in return. But how you use this gift is up to you, and as usual in these stories, the greedy and the quarrelsome make the poorest use of the golden moment. It’s the poor man and his humble wife who, by simply going about their ordinary morning’s business, received their windfall in a simplicity of gratitude without grasping.

Maybe there’s a theme here. After all, bags of gold play their part in a number of these stories. In “Master Jacob”, three self-important rogues set out to swindle the title character. At first, they succeed in making a patsy of him. But it turns out that Master Jacob is no lamb to go quietly to the slaughter. With his equally sly wife, he cleverly turns the tables on the rogues, taking them for a great deal more than they had got from him. But Master Jacob differs from the trio who started this dance. They were after gain because of their greed, while he only swindled those who had already swindled him. The swindlers are taught a lesson, shamed and humiliated by their erstwhile victim. The money is just a byproduct of all the shenanigans, the evidence of Master Jacob’s gleeful victory.

Probably the most satisfying story in the collection is “Which Is Best?” We begin with the classic set-up — two brothers, one rich and one poor.  The rich brother is grasping and harsh in his dealings with the world. Yet despite this, the poor brother is a happy man — “…it was a merry life that the poor brother led of it, for each morning when he took a drink he said, “Thank Heaven for clear water;” and when the day was bright he said, “Thank Heaven for the warm sun that shines on us all;” and when it was wet it was, “Thank Heaven for the gentle rain that makes the green grass grow.”

The rich brother is severely critical of his brother’s gentle generosity and mercy, blaming him for being a fool. To prove that he is right, the rich brother calls on a straw poll of random men-in-the-street, all of whom agree that the rich brother is right, that success is the only thing that matters. Then the rich man put out the poor man’s eyes, “… ‘for,’ says he, ‘a body deserves to be blind who cannot see the truth when it is as plain as a pikestaff.’ But still the poor man stuck to it that mercy was the best. So the rich man rode away and left him in his blindness.”

Of course, we know that all will end well for the poor man. He recovers his sight and  meets with good fortune, while the rich man comes to a bad end. But what gives this story its particular pleasure is the nature of the poor man’s success. He is given a choice between the allure of flashy jewels, the crass power of minted money, or the useful gifts of wisdom-revealing spectacles, a book of knowledge, and a medicinal apple. He chooses down-to-earth practicality — “Hi! But these are worth the having, sure and certain!” And he goes on to achieve success while remaining true to himself. The same man who gave his last farthing to a beggar at the start of the story is the man who goes about generously healing and curing at the story’s end.

Treasure Island

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Treasure IslandTreasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

It seems a long time since the last evening that Brian and I sat out in the lawn chair with our books after supper. That was at the end of May, and since then life seems to have turned into a muddle of one thing after another. It’s the busy season at work, Brian’s been in the hospital for almost three weeks, and to add to the confusion, he was in the middle of selling his house and looking for an apartment just before he ended up in the ER. So I’m spending my work days trying to get a thousand schoolkids on and off a few dozen buses, more often than not in a steady all-day downpour, then changing mental gears to spend evenings with Brian in the hospital trying to help him sort out his housing chaos and generally cheering him up and keeping him company, with my own assorted errands sandwiched in between. Sitting down after supper with a book just isn’t going to happen when supper itself doesn’t seem to happen very regularly.

A few nights ago, too weary in my mind to fall asleep, I thought that what I needed was a little dose of something that’s been missing from my life lately — a book. An easy book, an escape book. Something to read on my pillow, curled up comfortably until my mind was quiet enough for my eyes to close. I turned to the oldest books on the bookshelves, the ones I read as a girl, the well-worn ones that are pure comfort. Ran my hand over the row, and pulled out this one. Yep, Treasure Island. That was it, that was exactly what I needed.

For a few hours, this book let me be 12 years old again, with nothing to do but run off adventuring with Jim Hawkins and Doctor Livesey and the dour Captain and the silly old Squire, being creeped out delightfully by Billy Bones and Blind Pew and Israel Hands, laughing at Ben Gunn, and shaking my head at that cagey shape-shifting chameleon Long John Silver. I read the whole thing in just three nights, and fell firmly asleep each night with childlike soundness.

This was already an escape book the first time I ever read it, — escape from a dreary reading class regime. The reading classes at my elementary school consisted of reading one-paragraph selections and then answering inane multiple choice questions. Then the mother of one of my classmates started the Junior Great Books Club and the teacher tapped a handful of lucky students to participate. Escape! Hoo-ray! Instead of reading multiple-choice questions, we got to read interesting books and sit around a table talking about them. We read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Hawthorne’s Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, the stories of Mole and Rat and Toad from The Wind in the Willows — and finished the year with the wonderful Treasure Island.

I remember the discovery that struck me the most vividly upon that first reading was the disconnect between surface impressions and character. Long John Silver was such a charming fellow — until the shock of the apple-barrel chapter turned all my assumptions upside-down. This charming fellow was really a cold-blooded monster plotting to murder Jim and all his friends. I was outraged! And Captain Smollett was such a pessimistic old grouch — until he stood up to Long John in a heroic defiance at the fort. This grouch was a rock of strength, and I stood up and cheered when he told off Long John. Ben Gunn was a ridiculous tattered half-wit — until he outsmarted everyone by finding the treasure first. This half-wit was clever enough to play ghost and trick the pirates long enough for help to arrive. I was impressed. When I was 12 years old, all of this burst upon me as a fresh new thought, something I learned all on my own while reading a book — that people were more difficult to understand than a quick first glance suggested.

Reading it now, with bifocals and a head of gray hair, I’m aware of moral ambiguities that I never recognized as a child. Captain Smollet’s heroic defiance of Silver is still as stirring as ever, but reflecting on the bloody outcome, I wonder whether it would have been wiser to use more diplomacy. Doctor Livesey wheels and deals with Silver while double-crossing him, which isn’t strictly honorable, yet probably saved lives. Silver himself changes sides so often that nobody on either side can trust him anymore. Silver has no loyalty, choosing whichever side will do him the most good. Yet his crookedness plays a part in saving Jim and his friends. The Doctor urges Jim to make a break for it over the stockade wall even though this flouting of his parole would be less than honorable and would leave Silver open to punishment by his crew. Jim himself deserts the fort and goes AWOL at a crucial moment, although his selfish flight sets in motion the chain of events which save the ship. This is a morally gray story in so many ways that escaped my attention at the age of 12, when Jim’s side were the good guys and the pirates were the bad guys and that was that. The three sick, marooned pirates in the final chapter, kneeling on the beach with outstretched hands, begging to be taken aboard the departing ship, strike my conscience now in a way they never did then.

But despite these more sober thoughts, the book’s effervescent youthful high spirits still come to me like cool water when I’m thirsty for refreshment. Even after all these years, the sheer confidence of Stevenson’s inventiveness still carries me away. Even though I know the plot by heart and can almost quote much of the dialogue, I still remain delighted at the sureness of the story’s spinning, the zest of the telling. If this is just a boys and girls adventure book, which it admittedly is, it’s still arguably the best one ever written. In the world Stevenson invented, chased by pirates that I know are never going to catch me, I’m always set free for a few hours from whatever’s weighing me down.

The One and Only Ivan

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One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate

Children’s books will always have a place on my bookshelf, no matter how gray my hair gets. At their best, children’s books  offer plenty of meaty ideas for even an adult to chew on. But this meat is served in small digestible portions, not too heavy for a tired constitution, just the right size for the days when I’m feeling frazzled and in need of a simpler book.  So every year, when the children’s book awards are announced, I trot off to the library to check out bright new authors and books that I’ve never heard of. This month I’ve been reading two of the latest Newbery winners:  Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.

Since I’m only writing about one book at a time on this blog, I’ll leave out discussion of Bomb, except to say that my dad took the book away from me and didn’t put it down till he finished it. But The One and Only Ivan is the book I’m writing about today, because it’s the one that has stuck in my thoughts. Since I work at a zoo and have a sister who is an artist, there were themes here of significant interest to me.

There are over 2400 zoos and other animal exhibitors in the United States, but only slightly over 200, or 10% of them, are accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The zoo where I work is one of these. Taking the place I’m familiar with as a norm, I tend to forget that there may be a wide range of settings and conditions in other non-AZA zoos. The Big Top Mall in The One and Only Ivan represents one of the other possibilities.

Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and a few other random animals live in cages at a shopping mall where they serve as “attractions”.  These animals were all taken from lives they remembered in the wild, making the limitations of their present life more pointed. Since this is a children’s book, the animals can talk and tell each other their stories. Stella is an especially enthusiastic storyteller.  “Memories are precious,” says Stella, “They help tell us who we are.”  But who are you if you are out of your element?  Ivan remarks, “They have no name for what I am.”

Their owner Mack isn’t depicted as a cruel man, but as a businessman, essentially clueless about the animals’ social needs and natural inclinations. When Ivan was a young gorilla, Mack dressed him in clothes and raised him as if he were a human child, thinking that he was being good to him. When Ivan outgrew this artificial life, Mack housed him in a barren cage at the mall, a place of sameness day after day, blind to Ivan’s boredom and loneliness. Without any of his own species and desperate for bonds with other living creatures, Ivan pieced together a social life for himself from the companionship of his caged elephantine neighbor Stella, the scrappy stray mongrel dog Bob, and the janitor’s daughter Julia.

Ivan escapes from boredom through the stimulation he gets from art.  As a young gorilla in the wild, his name had been Mud, because he had loved smearing gobs of mud across surfaces. Now, in his cage at the mall, he discovers Julia’s crayons, and later the even greater pleasure of finger paints. The fascination of spreading colors on paper has the power to absorb him and carry him away from his limited life. Reflecting on his art and Stella’s storytelling, Ivan decides “I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings.”

The arrival of the baby elephant Ruby at the Big Top Mall is the catalyst for change. Before she dies, Stella asks Ivan to promise that he will get Ruby out of the mall.  But where to? A television program about a zoo inspires Ivan’s plan. How he worked out a plot to get Ruby moved to the Atlanta Zoo, and how Ivan himself was included in the move, makes up the plot of the story, a plot with a satisfying conclusion befitting a children’s book.  But beneath the exciting, wistful, comical plot twists, the story raises difficult questions about the complex relationship between humans and animals.

Two stories seem like oddly similar mirror images.  In the first story, related by Stella, Ivan hears about a human boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure in a zoo. While the humans panicked, fearful that the gorilla would attack the child, the gorilla gently stood protective watch over the boy until help came, as though the human child were a young injured gorilla. Ivan wonders why this should have so surprised the humans, why they expected the worst from the gorilla.  Later, Ruby relates a story of something that happened to her as a baby elephant in the wild. She had once fallen into a hole in the ground and been rescued by a concerned group of humans, who had saved her and returned her to her herd. Just as the humans in the first story had expected the worst of the gorilla, so Ivan listening to the second story had expected the worst of these humans. Both stories seem to say that the relationship between humans and animals doesn’t have to be based on fear. We can find ways to share space without hurting each other.

Ideally, animals belong in their own native places, which would be shared with humans who also belong there, neither harming the other. But the ideal of Eden or the Peaceable Kingdom is so far from the world we’re living in now. Humans have done so much harm to nature over the centuries, damage that can’t simply be undone overnight. There have to be safe places for animals to live until the damage is undone. Not places where they sit in forlorn cages all day, but places where they can live lives as fulfilling as can be managed until the hoped-for day when things are different “out there”. For animals which are endangered in the wild, animals with too few options left out there, zoos are arks, trying to save at-risk species as a hedge against the specter of extinction.  Our species created the problem, and we are trying to deal with the results as best we can.  “A good zoo”, Stella tells Ivan, “is how humans make amends.”

Even a good zoo isn’t the wild; it simply can’t be. But it should try to be the best alternative to the mess we’ve made. In the struggling efforts to work out compromises between wild spaces and enclosed spaces, we do best we can. Spaces must be as large and free as possible, the animal’s social needs must be met by others of the same kind, daily life must be rich and interesting. Somehow the animal’s nature has to be respected.  This book doesn’t try to convince us that we’ve found the perfect solution. Though it’s a children’s book, it doesn’t avoid facing hard questions. Stella’s death is painful, and there’s no way to hide that pain even from children.

Near the end of the book, Ivan studies his new environment and sums it up. “It’s a wild cage. I see where it begins and where it ends, the wall that says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be. It’s not a perfect place. A perfect place would not need walls.” Though we aren’t offered an illusion of perfection, we are offered hope. There has to be hope that humans and animals, despite being “this” and “that” to each other, can somehow find ways to live together on one planet.

Meanwhile, as we all go muddling through our lives from day to day, this book also reminds us of the healing and restoring power of creative imagination. It reminds us that telling stories and making pictures helps us survive the bad times, and even make them better.

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