Father-and-son stories are often odd. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is odd, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is odd, Daniel Wallace's Big Fish is odd. Joseph Krumgold's Onion John is also odd, as odd as the eccentric East European immigrant the book is named for, who lights fires, jumps in rivers, and mutters spells to cleanse the town of Serenity, New Jersey from evil spirits.
Father-and-son stories are often sad in a bittersweet way, and none of the books listed above are exceptions. But unlike the novels for adult readers, Onion John doesn't let on that it's bittersweet until the very end. When Krumgold finally shows you just what kind of book you're reading, the beauty of it is almost shocking.
But it's a slow burn, just like the small trees Onion John turns into torches. Many reviewers of the book complain that it's boring, that there's no point, that they didn't care what was going to happen, etc. And in some ways those are all fair complaints—not much seems to happen, the pacing is slow (especially for a kid's book), and it's difficult to predict where the story will end.
Like most odd, bittersweet father-and-son stories, however, the end of Onion John is well worth waiting for. The plot is simple: 12-year-old Andy Rusch (Junior) is the narrator and son of the town hardware store owner Andrew Rusch (Senior), but his best friend is Onion John, an Eastern European immigrant who understands English but can't speak it so anyone can understand.
Except Andy, of course, who tells us that to understand Onion John's slurring of English and his native tongue (Polish? Hungarian? Russian? we're never told) you have to not try too hard and just get carried away by the flood of speech. He sits for long days and afternoons just listening to Onion John tell him about strange rituals to bring rain and how to get rid of witches.
All this talk of superstition makes Andy's dad uncomfortable, and he starts to push Onion John away from his son. Until he gets to know the man, and then he becomes friends with Onion John himself. So much so that, when he finds out just what kind of shack John lives in, Andrew, Sr. organizes the Rotary Club to build a new, modern house for Onion John, who's lived in Serenity for years and has become a local landmark.
So, the whole town builds a house for Onion John. Who promptly burns it down (on accident), and ends up in the hospital. He escapes from the hospital, makes plans to run away from Serenity with Andy, then tells Andy that the boy has grown up and can't go with him. Onion John leaves town on his own, and Andy is left to pursue the engineering career his father desperately wants him to pursue.
The book doesn't end there, but the climax and denouement are too beautiful to try to sum them up here. What we realize in the final pages is that the book isn't really about the improbable adventures of Onion John, Andy, or Andrew, Sr. It's about the difficulty fathers have in letting their sons make the same mistakes they made, the difficulties of friendship, and the true nature of self-sacrifice and service.
For most of the book we're led to believe that Onion John will experience a brilliant transformation, or that Andrew Rusch will just give in to his son, or that Andy will somehow make everyone understand each other. None of that happens, and this is the genius of Krumgold's ending—it's enough like fiction to make our hearts swell with the beauty of it, and it's enough like real life that we can walk away wiser for having read it.
Is the book too long? It seems like it sometimes. Is there enough humor? There is humor, but not as much as we might expect from a story like this. Do many scenes seem out of place or unnecessary? In the interest of full disclosure, yes. But the end puts everything in perspective, and after the last page you realize Krumgold wrote Onion John exactly the way it needed to be.
It's undoubtedly dangerous to recommend a book in which so much rests on the ending. What if you read the whole thing and think the ending is meaningless, or dumb? Well, that's a risk worth taking. But you have to immerse yourself in the story, and in the perfectly captured 12-year-old voice of Andy, for the last pages to make sense, and affect you the way they're intended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?