Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)
Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch is a junior to his father’s senior and that carries a lot of weight and responsibility. Seems that Andy’s father has big plans for him: working for General Magneto this summer, studying at MIT, being an engineer, and maybe one day going to the moon! But all Andy wants to do is work in the family’s hardware store, play baseball, and hang out with his best friend, Onion John. Not many people can understand Onion John, but Andy does. Onion John is a beloved fixture in the small town of Serenity, New Jersey. He lives a simple life in his stacked-stone house filled with bathtubs and has his own ideas about how to make apples grow bigger or how to make it rain. Onion John’s fanciful ways clash with Andy’s father who wants his son to be practical and realistic. But how can a boy possibly choose between his best friend and his father? And what happens when your best friend starts to become friends with your father? Up until that point, the worst thing that had ever happened was when Eechee Ries was pulled from the pond and worked over by the Pulmotor.
Joseph Krumgold was the first writer to have been awarded the Newbery Medal twice. The first was for his 1954 novel …and now Miguel (which I read and really enjoyed) and he did it again in 1960 with this book. If written today, Onion John would still hold the same strong themes of standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, and accepting people for who they are and not for who you would like them to be. However, if you were pitching a story about a twelve-year-old boy befriending an unintelligible adult male who lives on the outskirts of town in a stone house today, it would clearly be a hard sell and, in all honesty, tend to come off as a bit creepy. But in 1959, it was simply a story about an unlikely friendship and the virtues of believing in yourself.
In addition to the strong bond Andy builds with Onion John—which eventually spills over and affects his relationship with his father—there is the project that the entire town adopts for the benefit of their most cherished citizen…Onion John. This is Krumgold providing a social commentary on how society tries to fit everyone into a convenient box and does so under the pretext of personal betterment. He makes you challenge the nature of charity and poses the question: “When is doing good not really good?” The people of Serenity wanted to do something very magnanimous for Onion John with the assumption that their efforts would make his life happier, easier, and better. But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and those subtleties tend to get in the way all for the sake of benevolence.
Joseph Krumgold packs so many wonderful lessons and moments in this book that it’s hard to choose just one to highlight for this review: Andy’s coming of age, Andy challenging his father, the town’s collective awakening, Andy’s father’s personal redemption, Andy’s deepening bond with his father. These are all worth further discussion, but I chose one that particularly resonated with me and that was Onion John’s ability to listen. How often are we talking to someone who is busy texting or reading or cleaning or something-ing and you’ll pause only to have them say, “Go ahead. I’m listening.” With Onion John, he would stop everything in order to let you know that at that moment, you were the singular, most important thing in the world. There was absolutely nothing more important in life at that moment than you. As Andy described, “One thing about Onion John, whatever he was doing, if someone came along he was always ready to stop and talk things over.” What a rare quality it is to find someone who is able to put life on pause in order to afford another human being the courtesy of their undivided attention. American journalist and author Krista Tippett wrote, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” Perhaps that is why only Andy could understand Onion John and no one else could. He was present. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all learn how to listen like that?
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
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