Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Winner's Circle: Onion John, by Joseph Krumgold (1960)

Only five authors in the 90+ year history of the Newbery Medal have won that honor twice. But while E. L. Konigsburg, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, and Elizabeth George Speare are all widely acknowledged as some of the most important authors in the history of American children's literature, Joseph Krumgold is more of a footnote.

Partly, that's because his writing for children was only a very small part of Krumgold's career. He was primarily a screenwriter, director, and documentary filmmaker; somehow, Krumgold won the Newbery twice while only writing five children's books total (one of which, Sweeny's Adventure, was a film adaptation). The three titles that didn't win the Newbery (the other two are Henry 3, and The Most Terrible Turk) are all long out of print and essentially forgotten, meaning that contemporary readers are unlikely to come across anything by Krumgold except ...And Now Miguel and Onion John.

Onion John, Krumgold's second Newbery winner, tells the story of twelve-year-old Andy Rusch, Jr., and his friendship with the highly eccentric immigrant man that everyone calls Onion John. John's firm belief in folk magic is at odds with the standards and mores of the community -- and especially with those of Andy's father. The town's efforts to bring John into the 20th century, whether he wants it or not, mirror Andy's father's attempts to plan the course of Andy's life, and these parallel plot strands converge at the end of the book.

The world of Onion John is that small-town America that's increasingly unfamiliar today, where the most influential organization in town is the Rotary Club, and the most important social event of the year involves beating on the ice of the frozen river in order to drive the fish into a downstream net. The speeches that Andy's father gives about how John ought to be "civilized" are based in a worldview that seems horribly out of date today -- though it's to Krumgold's credit that he doesn't seem sympathetic to that set of ideas. Indeed, there aren't really any villains in Onion John; everyone in the book is sincerely trying to do the right thing, which is the source of its pathos, its tragedy, and even its cautious optimism.

If we were to give out the 1960 Newbery again, it's unlikely that Onion John would win. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, was one of the three Honor books (The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall, and America is Born: A History for Peter, by Gerald W. Johnson, were the others), and George's survival novel has probably aged better than the others. However, Onion John is still a well-written, surprisingly tender book, one that deserves to be better-remembered than it is.

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