1960: Onion John (“Helping” Really = “Hurting”)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The 1960 Newbery Medal Winner was written by the same author as a previous “favorite” …And Now Miguel. Joseph Krumgold, the author, has a talent for excruciatingly boring prose spouted by banal narrators, on display in Onion John.

Onion John is a local eccentric who no one understands until 12-year-old Andy befriends him. With the help of a few of Andy’s other friends, Onion John brings rain to the town by means of a complicated rain dance. The group also nearly sets the basement on fire performing a ritual to bar unfriendly spirits on Halloween. Andy’s new friendship piques his father’s interest. Eventually, the entire town becomes involved in constructing a new house for Onion John, an ill-fated venture. Onion John, trying to feed his new gas stove newspapers like he did for his old one, explodes his new abode. In the fall-out, Onion John leaves town permanently. Moral: Trying to change someone (in this instance, forcing Onion John into a more “standard” lifestyle) only results in hurt for everyone involved.

Andy growing up forms another main subplot. Initially, he believes in Onion John’s magic rituals but, over the course of the book, comes to view them as illogical affectations. Andy and his father clash over Andy’s future path – Andy’s dad want him to become an astronaut, while Andy seems disposed to continue working in the family hardware store. Although nothing is settled at the end of the book, the pair have a good talk where Andy realizes what his father’s motives are and his dad agrees to let Andy make his own decisions.

Pluses: the book demonstrates that “helping” is not always useful and seems to advocate taking more consideration of the needs and desires of those you’re helping. It’s an issue I still see come up very frequently and has been the cause of much bigger failures than Onion John’s. I mean, why should us philanthropic Westerners ever ASK the people we want to help what they actually need? (taking off my anthropologist’s hat now and backing away slowly).

Minuses: The style, the narrator, the plot, where do I start? Much like Miguel from his previous novel, Krumgold’s Andy is a simple child, with the attendant language use. I’m not the biggest fan of first person narration to begin with, so, combined with simplistic language, it loses my attention quickly. Note: I’m NOT saying that the style mightn’t be authentic for the period/age of child. I’m only saying that it drove my slightly crazier than normal. The plot is…fairly episodic for the first section before the focus shifts to the building of Onion John’s house. It made it hard to become entranced with the narrative.

There are many good books out there. This is NOT one of them. Skip this.


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