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onion john

27 april 2011

Symeon Shimin's frontispiece illustration in Joseph Krumgold's 1960 Newbery Medalist Onion John shows from the rear an old man in an floppy overcoat, raising his arms and gazing to the heavens. The coat falls open, though we can't see from our angle what it reveals. In front of the man stands a little boy, his eyes agape, staring at the man's midriff. I can safely assert that this illustration would not appear in a children's book fifty years later, unless the book were entitled Flasher Danger and marketed via appeals to parental fear.

I don't quite get Onion John. I mean, it's a children's book and the reading level is not exactly David Foster Wallace, but I seriously find it hard to follow – on the level not of plot or language, but of characters' motivations and underlying significances. I know L.P. Hartley's contention that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there, but how foreign can the year of my birth and the state where I went to high school possibly be?

Onion John is flat-out, parts-to-the-wall weird. It begins at a baseball game. Our hero/narrator, Andy Rusch, is playing center field, and in between events in the game, he interacts with a vagrant dumpster-diver called Onion John. The epiphanies that Andy experiences out in center field build into a friendship between the boy and the old man.

That's not really the weird part. Friendships between pre-adolescents and sketchy elders populate a lot of celebrated kids' fiction, from Maniac Magee to the 2011 Medalist Moon over Manifest. They are emblematic of the childlikeness of certain marginal adults, and the tolerance for marginalized people that is part of the ideology of most children's literature (though not of most children readers' parents, in practice).

We have to accept a lot of implausible, even impossible friendships between children and adults if we want to read children's fiction. That's OK. What I don't get about Onion John is what its title character stands for. He is completely unrealistic, which suggests that he's emblematic, and in a general way he stands for what it's like to be misunderstood. But he's embodied as a vaguely "Other" elder white man, evidently an Eastern European, possibly Hungarian (he reveres "Saint Stepan"). The townfolk, generic white New Jerseyans of bleached-out ethnicity, can't understand his bizarre lingo, though Andy of course understands it implicitly and intuitively. The people of Serenity, NJ, band together industriously to help Onion John. But his ideas of the order of the Universe are not theirs. He is a mystic, they are rationalists; they're pragmatists, he's a dreamer.

It sounds like a fable. But the execution of this fable is hyper-realistic, and told in a fashion that makes its bizarrer events seem not just matter-of-fact but part of the nature of Middle America. People do weird unmotivated things throughout the novel: this is a case of a very mundane Garden State with impossibly romantic toads in it. I'd call it magical-realist except that it's utterly unmagical (and not very believable).

Is there some kind of post-1956 allegory going on, about strenuous collective action in the service of anti-Communism? I think not, but I'm straining to discern how to make any sense out of this book, and I'm defeated. I think I'll have to conclude that Onion John tries to be your basic kid-meets-misfit story, but it just isn't very competent at doing so. It leaves a bemusing taste in my mouth.

Krumgold, Joseph. Onion John. Illustrated by Symeon Shimin. 1959. New York: Scholastic, 1990.