Misspent Youth: The Toothpaste Millionaire

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.

Not like that’s the sort of thing you’d want to go into detail about; she just offhandedly mentions it, and how she doesn’t really hold it against the bomber, who needed the money and was nice enough to make sure everyone got out before the bomb went off. Then they get on with the really important matters of accounting and recordkeeping requirements, because when the toothpaste magnates try to buy up all the stock in Rufus’s company (It doesn’t work, since Rufus owns 50.1% of the stock), they discover that he’s been keeping all his records in one school notebook and issuing stock certificates out of a board game and they sic the SEC on him, though apparently this too is quickly resolved once they work out that, despite his failure to fill out the proper paperwork, Rufus hadn’t defrauded anyone. Rufus’s banker advises him to set up a board of directors and hire an accountant, which he does, at which point Rufus feels that he’s pretty much solved Toothpaste-making and promptly retires.

This is a fun book, and I haven’t even addressed a lot of things, like how Kate lucks into finding a recently-vacated cosmetics factory that comes with a tube-filling machine and a man to operate it (Hector, who becomes Rufus’s only paid employee and ends up taking over the business in the end), or how their math class evolves into “Toothpaste 1”, where they solve optimization problems to minimize Rufus’s costs, or the “Totally Honest Commercials” where they simply describe the process of making toothpaste or break down their cost structure. I like it a lot, though there’s some things which fall flat for me as an adult, or even become uncomfortable.

Like, for all they play up how Rufus is honest and economical and imply that the only reason toothpaste should cost more than fifteen cents (the price has to go up once he’s got to pay for an employee, rent for the factory, tubes and postage) is corporate greed, Rufus externalizes a lot of his costs. Until Kate provides him with his first supply of tubes, he’s packaging TOOTHPASTE in recycled baby food jars (I had to explain this to Dylan, who did not grow up in an era where having a baby implied acquiring several hundred small glass jars which could be usefully used for storing odd screws, buttons, small change, and, I guess, TOOTHPASTE), which he got for free from neighborhood families. And there’s the whole thing where he paid his employees (his elementary school classmates) in company stock — I mean, yay for the workers owning the means of production, but boo for not paying minimum wage. Or the fact that until they rent the factory, their production line was in Kate’s kitchen.

The other thing that has aged… awkwardly… is its wild stab at making a statement about race relations. See, Kate’s white and Rufus is black, and this has very little impact on anything at all in the book, except that the narrative thinks it ought to be important. This is hard to explain since I live in a time and a place which is, in fact, incredibly racist, so I can’t just say “This book presumes racism is a thing in a way it’s not any more.” But it does presume a very different kind of racism to the every day experience of living in America in the twenty-first century.

Basically, the narrator repeatedly treats the idea of a black boy and a white girl being friends as something she needs to justify. That if she hadn’t taken special care to introduce the concept, the audience would’ve called bullshit. Similarly, when Hector meets Kate and she suggests he work for Rufus, Hector’s first question, not having met Rufus yet, is, “Does he discriminate?” And Rufus’s choice of bank is motivated by their advertisements pointing out their policy of non-discrimination. And the thing is, I can totally imagine banks discriminating against black business owners in 2018 because, y’know, they do. But can you imagine a bank literally putting it in their commercials that they don’t? Saying it out loud as a point of pride? We’re way too reluctant to actually admit that racism exists to say something like that. And what about the banks that don’t say it?

I guess what makes me uncomfortable isn’t that it addresses discrimination, but that it addresses it in such a superficial way. That it’s just a straight up-down “does he discriminate?” question, and that this is treated as natural. You kinda get the feeling that if we encountered any actual racists, they’d very simply and politely say, “Sorry; I’m a racist and therefore can’t do business with you.” This doesn’t seem to be set in a world where someone would say, “I’m the least racist person you’ll ever meet,” while referring to Africa as a “shithole”.

And the thing is, nothing ever actually comes of it. People keep telling us that they personally are not prejudiced (in a way that implies that this is some weird quirk about that person), but we never actually run into anyone who is. Rufus can’t get a business loan because he’s a child, but when he shows up with Hector (who is also black) as a business partner, they have the loan within a few hours. Rufus gets interviewed by the local news and airs commercials in the national market with no mention that, say, they had to film one commercial with only white people in it in order to get it on the air in Georgia. The factory gets blown up, but that’s because “Organized Crime” objects to Rufus disrupting the toothpaste industry’s price-fixing, not because a bunch of drunk rednecks object to a [racial slur] kid making a fortune. Rufus never runs into any obstacles on account of his race, and heck, the book ends with him bicycling alone from Cleveland to somewhere in Tennessee without so much as a mention of whether or not he had to pick up a Green Book to figure out which towns he might be murdered for riding through. It seems to simultaneously make a big deal out of racism, that it’s something you always have to consider, while downplaying it, since it’s not something that has any meaningful impact on anyone’s life.

I think it’s great that Merrill decided to write a book with a multiracial cast, and that she wrote a book with strong characters of color. But this just isn’t a book about race relations, and placing that extra emphasis on it feels like… Is there a Newberry Award equivalent of Emmy Cancer? It feels unearned, like it is literally just in there to help sell the book as Important. I’m kind of surprised there’s nothing similar in there about Kate’s gender. But no, we never really get any talk about Kate having to confirm whether someone is sexist before she can work with them. Though we do get an actual example of sexism in action, albeit as an offhand comment: Rufus’s financial advisor (the aforementioned banker who doesn’t discriminate) suggests Kate for TOOTHPASTE’s board of directors because, “You have to have a woman on the board nowadays.” (Rufus wants her there because he trusts her, but it’s interesting to contrast how often we’re told people are or aren’t racist with the fact that it goes utterly unqualified that the banker outright advises tokenism.)

Even with that, this is a great book for kids. I mean, if you’re willing to introduce your children to capitalism in such a sugar-coated fashion. But hey, it’s a way to start the conversation, I guess. And it got Dylan interested. So I’m glad we read this one together.

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