Onion John

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1960

Onion John

by Joseph Krumgold

Age: 9 +

Interests: father-son relationships, careers, superstition, tolerance, small town life

Also by this author: … And Now Miguel (another Newbery Medal winner), Henry 3, The Most Terrible Turk: A Story of Turkey, Sweeney’s Adventure

Harper & Row: 1959

248 pages, 20 chapters

Twelve-year-old Andy lives in the small town of Serenity, plays baseball, and loves nothing more than helping out in his father’s hardware store. His father has got big plans for Andy’s future: studying at MIT, becoming a scientist and someday going to the moon. Andy goes along with his dad’s dreams, though his heart isn’t in it. How on earth can he tell his dad he would rather work in the hardware store than go to the moon?

Things get more complicated when Andy becomes friends with Onion John, the eccentric old hermit who lives in a shack on the edge of town. Onion John speaks in an odd language that only Andy can follow, and knows a complicated spell or potion to cure any problem. Andy believes in his friend’s magical powers, even though his dad dismisses such unscientific thinking. The trouble really begins when Andy’s father visits John’s shack and decides that the town should build him a proper house, complete with plumbing and electricity. This project quickly becomes a juggernaut, as the entire town leaps on the bandwagon. It’s just unfortunate that no one asks John what he really wants.

A fantastic one-day building bee produces a beautiful house, but John’s unfamiliarity with the electrical stove leads to a fire which destroys the building. John barely escapes with his life. At the same time Andy’s father has decided Andy will work in a nearby factory for the summer instead of in the store. Andy doesn’t want to go, but feels so helpless in the face of his father’s decision that he decides his only option is to run away, joining Onion John in his planned escape from the do-gooders of Serenity. At the last minute John reveals the plan to Andy’s parents. Andy finally reveals to his dad how much he admires him and how he wants to grow up to be like him and run the family store. At last they come to an understanding about Andy’s future plans.

This story is at once a small tale of a boy’s relationship with his father, a bigger story of belief in science and magic, and an even larger satire of small town life and politics. The proliferation of committees to build a house for John that he doesn’t actually want or need, and the joy the townspeople find in their well-meaning but bumbling efforts, is sharply witty. That larger-scale satire can coexist so well with a subtle, emotional coming of age story is testament to the great skill of the author. The complex relationship between Andy Jr. and Sr. is well-articulated and very moving at the end. And the way Andy and his friends act out Onion John’s Hallowe’en rituals is wildly funny.

The rather sophisticated satire of small-town politics – it reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town – may make this a bit challenging for some, but this novel is still a lively read. The difficulties a true eccentric faces in a small strait-laced town makes for a fascinating story. And the navigation of a difficult father-son relationship is a situation that many young readers will connect with.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.