Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (J)

Onion John

Onion John

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?

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Breaker Boys by Pat Hughes (J)

The Breaker Boys

The Breaker Boys

Pat Hughes (Juvenile Fiction)

Nate Tanner was born into privilege.  For several generations, his family has owned coal mines near Hazelton, Pennsylvania allowing Nate to have anything he desired: the best education, the finest clothes, and a bevy of servants to see to his every need.  What Nate didn’t have was a single friend.  Perhaps it was because of his temper or that he was spoiled or that he was always getting into trouble.  Maybe it was all three.  Like his teacher said, when you had so much, what was left to try for?  But then he met Johnny Bartelak, a Polish American boy who sorts coal in one of his family’s breakers.  Theirs was a friendship that started with a simple bike ride, but would slowly be built with lie upon lie.  How could Nate tell Johnny the truth about his family and how could he possibly tell his family about Johnny?  As the miners begin to talk of joining a labor union, Nate must make the ultimate choice between friendship and family.

The Breaker Boys is based on actual events that occurred on September 10, 1897 at the Lattimer mine near Hazelton, Pennsylvania.  Known as the Lattimer Massacre, nineteen striking immigrant coal miners were killed and thirty-nine others were wounded.  The miners were mostly of Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, and German ethnicity and author Pat Hughes brings their story and struggles to life in this thoughtful and moving story about friendship, honor, forgiveness, and betrayal.  Although Hughes fills her novel with plenty of conflicts—rich versus poor, father versus son, labor versus management, immigrant versus native—the story never feels bogged down or overly preachy and the action and emotions slowly intensify as Nate’s secret becomes closer and closer to being discovered.

Hughes also takes her time in allowing the reader to get to know Nate Tanner—a spoiled, self-indulgent, self-centered, rude, and disrespectful twelve-year-old boy whose mother died while he was quite young and who has still not forgiven his father for marrying the family’s governess.  To her credit, Hughes made Nate very human and avoided giving him an Ebenezer Scrooge or Grinch moment where he sees the error of his ways and experiences a complete moral transformation.  Nate is, after all, a young boy with a lot of growing up to do and so we continue to see moments of selfishness, arrogance, and stubbornness throughout the book, which makes his character all the more relatable and sympathetic.

The Breaker Boys is gripping and insightful and offers readers a glimpse into American history while illustrating the importance of honesty, the value of friendship, and the gift of second chances.  American educator, author, and businessman Stephen Covey said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” and Pat Hughes shows us that despite differences in class, ethnicity, and religion, two young boys found strength and friendship through something as simple as a bike ride.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (J)

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes (Juvenile Fiction)

How did it all start?  Maddie wasn’t quite sure, but then she remembers.  It started with a girl, Wanda Petronski, who lives on Boggins Heights with her dad and brother.  Wanda comes to school every day in the same faded blue dress that doesn’t seem to hang right.  She’s quiet and sits in the far corner of the classroom.  Nobody seems to pay her much mind, except that her last name is silly and hard to pronounce.  She’s practically invisible until that one day when Wanda wanted so desperately to be a part of the group.  So hungry for companionship and inclusion.  That one day when the other girls were talking about dresses and Wanda said, “I got a hundred dresses home.”  Who knew that that one single sentence would have such an effect…not just on Wanda, but on so many more.

Oftentimes, a book or story acts as a balm—more for the author than the reader.  It is a last-ditch effort of making things right…of righting a wrong.  R.J. Palacio accomplished this through her wonderful and poignant book The Wonder, a novel about a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS) where bones and facial tissues develop abnormally.  She says that the inspiration for her book came after a chance encounter with a little girl in an ice cream store.  In “A Letter to Readers”, Estes’s daughter, Helena, says that her mother’s inspiration came from a classmate who was much like Wanda.  An immigrant shunned by her peers and longing to fit in and be liked.  Her mother, like Maddie, realized too late that complacency is just as bad as participation and that popularity should never be achieved at the expense of another.

The Hundred Dresses won a Newberry Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since.  There is a very good reason for this.  Although it is a mere 80 pages, Eleanor Estes makes every sentence reverberate within our very heart and soul and Louis Slobodkin’s beautiful illustrations give this heartfelt story a vibrant beauty and grace.  This is a story that should be shared and discussed with readers of all ages.  It reminds us of the power of words and the heart’s amazing capacity to find and offer forgiveness.  Children find it difficult to remove the target from someone else’s back for they know all too well that there is a very good chance that the target will find a new home upon their own.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for what is right.  Only later in life do we realize that sometimes the only thing worse than living with shame, is living with regret.  In this age of bullying and intolerance, the lessons learned from The Hundred Dresses are still as relevant and important today as they were in 1944.  Gratefully, we have Wanda and Maddie who remind us that it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry” and more importantly, “I forgive you.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy

William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)

In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses.  Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world.  The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world.  For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.

This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more.  With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca.  The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students.  All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.

The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood.  Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager.  Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.

One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things.  He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man.  On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com