There’s a handful of books I read — or more accurately, were read to me — in my youth which left enough of an impression that I’ve felt compelled to track down a copy thirty-or-so years later, particularly now that I’ve got little’uns to read them to. This is still a work in progress. Evie’s not old enough to appreciate The Frisky Kittens or Piglets at Sea yet, and I think I should give Dylan another year or two before I spring The Westing Game or From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler on him. But we made some headway recently when, on the second try, he got interested in Jean Merrill’s The Toothpaste Millionaire.
Jean Merrill is best known for an earlier book, The Pushcart War, which I bet is pretty surreal to read now since the publishers keep pushing forward its then-near-future dates to keep them near-future, but probably they haven’t updated Merrill’s writing style to be less full of charmingly dated minutia. Also, odd coincidence, Merrill and I have the same birthday.
I don’t remember exactly when we read The Toothpaste Millionaire in school, but it was definitely during Media Center (even back then, in the misty murk of history, “Library” was deprecated). Over on the far side where there was a clearing that served as a small presentation stage, flanked by the bookcases of Hardy Boys books, sitting in a position whose old name I completely agree was inappropriate and had to go, but for which they have not yet invented a replacement name I can possibly take seriously (“Criss-Cross-Applesauce”? Come the fuck on. That is stupid. That’s worse than “letter-carrier”. Get the folks who came up with “firefighter” on this. They know their stuff).
The basic story is this: Kate McKinstrey and her family move from Connecticut to Cleveland, and the first friend she makes is a clever and economical boy named Rufus Mayflower, who helps her make saddle bags for her bike. Erelong, Rufus develops an obsession with the cost of toothpaste, and decides to go into business selling his own homemade baking soda-based dentifrice under the name brand-name TOOTHPASTE, and sells it for three cents a bottle. To say that hijinks ensue is being a bit hyperbolic. Spoilers: Rufus makes a million dollars.
The book is pretty funny. Dylan found it hilarious, in fact. It’s not, if you’re an adult, that much happens which is especially silly in itself; in fact, the whole book is a series of people acting reasonably and making rational decisions. But there’s a lot of comedy in the outsider point-of-view and the… Let’s say child-like plainspokenness. Have you ever tried to explain a complicated social concept to a child, like why we segregate bathrooms by gender or why it’s not socially acceptable for men to wear skirts or why we have capitalism, and halfway through realized that it actually is, in fact, ridiculous? That happens a lot in this book. A lot of “Well why not?”
What I noticed on this read through is that the structure of the book is a little strange. The book is largely presented as Kate recapping how Rufus solved a series of logistical problems. The narrative is sort of fragmentary because of this: each chapter is essentially a separate episode, and the linking between individual scenes is generally pretty weak. Some chapters are barely narrative at all. For instance, one chapter covers Rufus doing a TV interview. In a more traditional narrative, you might have a scene of Kate and Rufus talking beforehand, and a scene of Kate watching from the audience and her thoughts and feelings as Rufus goes on the air. But instead, we get a chapter that’s mostly exposition, with Kate dryly explaining about the local talk show, a transcript of the interview itself, and a coda talking about all the new orders they got, including an anecdote about an order from someone in California who’d been on the phone with a relative in Cleveland when the interview aired.
The style works for me, and I think it would work for most kids with engineering-type minds, who’d be more interested in the problem-solving than in any sort of character-driven narrative. Even in the ’80s when I first read the book, there was a weird uncanniness to the ’70sness of it too. Kate accidentally buys five gross of toothpaste tubes thinking she’s buying five dozen, though it still only ends up costing her like five bucks. Which is a lot of money back then.
But having said that, I find that my memories of the book aren’t weighted proportionally. Virtually all the conflict in the book comes in the last fifteen pages, and it feels almost entirely offhand, even though my memory tells me it’s a major theme (My memory also tells me that Kate also bought a barrel of aglets on a lark. This didn’t happen at all, and now I’m wondering if maybe that’s something I am remembering from a different book? Anyone recall a book where the narrator and the protagonist go to an auction and the narrator buys a barrel of aglets?). Another thing I remembered from my youth was a pervasive sense of Rufus being a little “off”. Back in elementary school, I wouldn’t have had the concept, but Rufus, with his obsessiveness over waste, his fetish for honesty, and his frequent displays of frustration at people acting like people, definitely struck me at the time as being on the spectrum. Reading it now, I didn’t get that impression at all, and I’m curious where it came from, whether I was projecting from something else, or maybe it was something I was nudged into by the teacher? The whole of the conflict is squeezed down to just a couple of chapters, the main one of which is deliberately gonzo.
After the major toothpaste brands start folding as a result of the ensuing price war, the remaining players invite Rufus to a “conference” about the health of the industry. It turns out to be an attempt to involve him in a price-fixing scam, which ends when it turns out that the FBI just happens to be in the next room over and promptly arrests the heads of the competing brands. Kate presents this in the form of a screenplay, having decided that she’d like to be a screenwriter specializing in torn-from-the-headlines dramas. And then the chapter ends with the offhand reveal that the toothpaste factory was blown up by a gangster working for the mob.