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War Writ Small: Of Pushcarts And Peashooters

Adam Mansbach is the author of the forthcoming novel Rage is Back.

Stealing my 9-year-old nephew's copy of The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill was the best thing I did last summer. I was his age the first time I read it, and twice his age the last time I went back to it. I'm twice that old again now, but as soon as I dove into this intimate, majestic tale of war writ small — of a battle between the pushcart peddlers and the truckers of New York City — I realized how timeless, and how deeply a part of me, the story was.

Before long, I was tearing up as I anticipated events to come — not so much the major plot points as the masterful asides and grace notes that make the story so rich. I finished that same evening — a feat my nephew found stunning — and I haven't stopped thinking about the book since.

The Pushcart War is presented as a history of a conflict that has not yet taken place; in each edition of the book, the date on which the hostilities commenced is nudged forward. I remember the power of that effect vividly from my first reading; it felt like standing with one foot in the past and one in the future, and it was strange and wonderful.

Merrill, who died in August at the age of 89, begins by explaining that most wars are too massive and too complicated to be understood, and that we cannot prevent what we fail to comprehend — true when she wrote it, nearly 50 years ago, and undiminished since. But the Pushcart War, she tells us, is different. Its battles were confined to the streets of one city, and the weapons were simple enough to be understood by a 6-year-old. It was a war in microcosm, but there were generals and campaigns, truces and casualties. At stake were the streets themselves, and thus the future of the city.

At the heart of the conflict lie two opposing models of business, and of thought: The trucking companies believe bigger is better, that growth means progress, and that might is right. They want to eliminate all other vehicles, and their first intended victims are the pushcart peddlers — small businesses beholden to a very different philosophy.

Adam Mansbach is also the author of <em>The End of the Jews. </em>
/ Courtesy of Matthew L. Kaplan
Courtesy of Matthew L. Kaplan
Adam Mansbach is also the author of The End of the Jews.

Their customer service is personal, their territories well-defined; they perform hidden services fundamental to the function of the city. They are, in today's parlance, "sustainable." But the pushcarts are no pushovers. When their livelihoods and reputations are threatened, they take the fight to the enemy, with a peashooter offensive that leaves the trucks deflated. Literally.

There is a familiar old-world charm to peddlers like Morris the Florist and Harry the Hot Dog, but there are no ingenues here. We know whom to root for, but Merrill's war is wrought in shades of gray. Battles are won in the court of public opinion, as often as on the streets. Pushcart king Maxie Hammerman is as savvy a strategist as his opponents, the trucking magnates, and their ally, the mayor. Both sides know how to cultivate powerful friends and the importance of manipulating the media.

Merrill's story, full of unexpected reversals and understated witticisms, feels exceptionally modern. And by the end — after the two sides have hammered out a peaceful and deeply reasonable compromise — one can only hope that we'll catch up to Merrill's future one day.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

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Adam Mansbach