1960: Onion John (aka, please leave the bums alone)

VERDICT: Treasure, maybe

Sally’s Rating: 3/5

Onion John by Joseph Krumgold is a touching story of 12-year-old Andy Rusch’s friendship with an eccentric hermit who lives in a small New Jersey town. As the only one who can understand Onion John, Andy learns of his odd ways and old superstitions, and before long, the whole town wants to get involved in Onion John’s affairs by building him a house.

This coming of age tale excelled at capturing Andy’s innocence and bewilderment of Onion John’s ways. Andy easily gets swept up in Onion John’s Halloween superstitions and rain-making fantasies as many children would. He idolizes John’s ways and understands him better than anyone else, while John is able to indulge in Andy’s childishness and refusal to grow up. They accept each other for who they are, but the town’s insertion into their friendship makes things change for the worse as John begins to feel uncomfortable with having to act like someone he’s not.

Andy’s other genuine relationship is the one he has with his father. His father wants him to be an engineer and go to the moon, but Andy only wants to take over the family hardware business. Andy’s father tries to live vicariously through his son, which eventually spurs Andy to plan to run away with Onion John. I found this desire to run away to be an over the top reaction for someone who had been portrayed as fairly level-headed. Nevertheless, their relationship is believable and easy to read about.

While coming of age narratives are not my favorite things to read, this book presented some themes that are not often covered in children’s novels. This book highlights the fact the sometimes people need to be left alone to make their own decisions. The town’s inclusion in Onion John’s life actually makes things worse for him, and I wasn’t quite sure where the author was going with the story until the very end.

I was ready for a predictable ending, but the story shifted gears and surprised me, redeeming this over-indulging and meandering tale. The father-son relationship comes to the forefront again as both Andy and his father begin to understand each other. There is a positive message hidden within the book about how children should be allowed to make their own choice on their own time. It made me wish more time had been spent on this relationship than on the antics of Onion John.

Overall, this book portrayed some complex relationships without any of the characters getting into deep trouble. It combines the right level of whimsical fantasy with deep grounded reality. If you are looking for a book about father-son relationships, Onion John is an okay read, but don’t expect too much out of it.

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