The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (J Fiction)

The Pushcart War  

Jean Merrill (J Fiction)

Imagine if Morris the Florist hadn’t been blocking the curb and if Mack hadn’t been in such a hurry to deliver his load of piano stools and if Marvin Seely hadn’t taken a picture with a camera that he had just gotten for his birthday and if Emily Wisser hadn’t cut out that same picture from the newspaper for her scrapbook and if Emily Wisser hadn’t shown that same clipping to her husband, Buddy Wisser, a newspaper editor…well, we might not ever have had the Pushcart War. Now, imagine THAT!

I read The Pushcart War in elementary school, so it had been out for a little over ten years by the time I laid my grubby little hands on it. I’m not sure what drew me to this particular book. Most likely it was the funny little drawing on the cover of a man in a black overcoat wearing a ridiculous flower hat who was right in the middle of shooting a pin at a big truck that caught my eye and imagination (ten-year-olds were much easier to amuse back then!). That book quickly became a long-lost memory until I came across it sitting innocently enough on a library shelf. I pulled it out and there he was! That same funny little man with his ridiculous hat STILL waging war against that massive truck some 40+ years later. After reading it with fresh eyes and a greater understanding of the world, I’m unclear why this book made such an impression on my ten-year-old self, but my much older self is chuckling while shaking my head after realizing that nothing much has changed since its publication.

The Pushcart War is packed with humor, hijinks, and heart. It is the quintessential David-versus-Goliath story of a pack of pushcart vendors who wage war against mighty mammoth trucks in hopes of maintaining their little slice of the free enterprise capitalist pie. Written in 1964, set in 2036, and taking place in 2026 (you got that?), Merrill’s story resonates just as true today as it did in the 60s: demonstrating the virtues and vices of speaking out for what is right; displaying the corruption of those in power who abuse their platform for personal gain by bowing to the desires of special interest groups; illustrating how the media can be a driving force behind shaping public opinion; and proving the unfortunate influence that money ultimately has on morality. Sound familiar? You might think that such weighty topics would never be able to hold the attention of a young reader, but Merrill’s Rube-Goldbergesque approach to storytelling—where one act sets off a series of complex events—keeps readers engaged and enthralled. I mean, who could have imagined that a simple tax on tacks could touch off a possible war with England? Jean Merrill, that’s who. It’s this kind of utterly improbable and highly outrageous scenario that keeps us entertained and cheering for the little guys…no matter how hopeless or hapless their situation may be.

Author Karen Traviss wrote, “I don’t know who the good guys are anymore. But I do know what the enemy is. It’s the compromise of principles. You lose the war when you lose your principles. And the first principle is to look out for your comrades.” Aside from their dried peas and little pea shooters, the people who sold hot dogs or flowers or knick-knacks from their little carts all shared a common purpose: a desire to be seen and to be counted and to be respected. They wanted a place in the world—free from bullying and intimidation and eradication. More than that, they didn’t want someone else to assign them value or worth. The pushcarts knew talking was better than fighting and believed in their cause so much that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They knew that their cause was bigger than just one or two carts and together, they were a force to be reckoned with. Together, they could elicit change. I imagine that the world might be a better place if we just had a few more pushcarts.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to:

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries

Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus (Adult Fiction)

“There are essentially three types of nanny gigs.  Type A, I provide ‘couple time’ a few nights a week for people who work all day and parent most nights.  Type B, I provide ‘sanity time’ a few afternoons a week to a woman who mothers most days and nights.  Type C, I’m brought in as one of a cast of many to collectively provide twenty-four/seven ‘me time’ to a woman who neither works nor mothers.  And her days remain a mystery to us all.”  Nan would categorize Mrs. X as definitely a Type C.  In her final year at NYU, Nan is juggling school, her roommate’s obnoxious and hairy boyfriend, a self-absorbed boss, a promising romance, and a precocious four-year old by the name of Grayer.  As Mrs. X becomes increasingly more demanding—while blurring the lines between hired help and servant—Nan begins to wonder how much she can possibly bear for the sake of a single child.

Authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have worked for over thirty New York City families and claim that their story of Mrs. X and her family is entirely fictional and not based on an actual family.  Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief and hope that’s true.  To imagine such a cold, disconnected, passive-aggressive, self-entitled woman and an equally despicable, philandering, and narcissistic man actually being parents that possess such a profound and everlasting effect on another human being is beyond the pale and frightening to think about.  As loathsome characters go, let’s not leave out our poor and hapless Nanny…Nan for short.  Although she has a genuine regard for Grayer and clearly has his welfare in mind, one cannot overlook her obvious lack of a spine, as well as dignity and self-respect.  One of my biggest pet peeves is a person—either real or imaginary—who complains constantly about his or her current circumstances, but does not a single, solitary thing to remedy it (Kathy Nicolo from House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III quickly comes to mind).  Nan hates her employer and despises her current living situation yet she refuses to quit or move.  Either she’s unimaginably loyal or really likes being miserable.  Unfortunately, when Nan is miserable, she shares her misery with us and then WE become miserable and unless you’re Job, being subjected to perpetual pain and suffering is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Nanny Diaries isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read and it does contain some self-deprecating humor, but the deplorable supporting characters and a whiny main character make this an overall annoying read resulting in an unpleasant (and yes, miserable) experience.  The only character with heart who deserves any semblance of sympathy is Grayer who represents any child who was conceived to be nothing more than an accessory worn on the arm versus a being to be held in your heart.

If you want an insight into the world of high-priced fashion designers and luxury brand names (Chanel, Prada, Judith Leiber, Lalique, Ferragamo, Armani, Gucci), then this is the book for you.  If you are looking for a heartwarming and feel-good story about nannies and the children in their care, amble down the children’s section of your local library or bookseller and check out the adventures of Mary Poppins or Nurse Matilda.  You’ll find nary a Hermès bag or Manolo Blahnik pump in these stories, but you might feel a little better about the world and those among us who have more money than manners…unless you like feeling miserable and then the Book of Job is right up your alley.

Rating: 3/5

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