Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch walks to school and walks home for lunch. He’s free to roam the countryside surrounding his small town of Serenity the whole day long, and his parents have no trouble with him befriending the village’s odd-man character, Onion John.
Today’s generation of children will read Onion John and consider it a fairytale, yet when the novel was written in 1959, it was contemporary realistic fiction. It’s a sweet story of contrasts—growing up and meeting the future versus looking back and accepting the past. Andy and his father both learn wisdom as they try to help Onion John. For Andy, that means being Onion John’s best friend, and since he’s the only person in his community who can understand John’s garbled speech, he also becomes John’s interpreter. For Mr. Rusch, it means turning Onion John into a good-deed project and organizing the town to help build the “homeless” man a proper house. Except Onion John doesn’t want a new house, and he doesn’t need an interpreter to thrive in the world he has established for himself.
I grew up in communities like Serenity. Why didn’t I read this book as a child? It has such a beautiful ending. My only excuse: the main character is a boy. I only liked girl stories.
- Krumgold weaves life lessons in so subtly, the reader never feels preached at.
- The characters often disagree with one another, yet they always keep loving each other. Something our society needs to learn in the 21st century.
- Everyone in town is nice. No villains, other than misguided good intentions. You may be thinking, “Why did she say this is not a fairytale?” Because while the people are nice, they’re not perfect. And isn’t that reality? Not many of us rub shoulders with evil people all the time. Friction happens because two decent people have different opinions.
- Andy has both a mother and a father, and they enjoy a happy marriage. They love their son. Almost everything I read these days has a main character who is orphaned, half-orphaned, or is a child of divorce . Onion John portrays a refreshing setting.
- I felt the plot still had a slight sagging middle before the town got on board to build Onion John a new house. Then again, maybe it was the boy-style plot details that didn’t hold this old girl’s interest.
- Today’s parents might be horrified at the freedoms allowed to Andy, afraid their children would make the mistake of straying too far from home and into an unsafe neighborhood. Unless you live near a crime-ridden area, please don’t overreact. And if you do live in a dangerous area, you could address this as a safety issue via Discussion Question one.
- What kinds of activities do you think you would have participated in if you were allowed to range from one end of town to the other and out into the country? Would it be safe to have that kind of freedom where you live today?
- How did Andy and his buddies show friendship to Onion John? How did Onion John show friendship to them?
- What was wrong with Mr. Rusch’s plan to help Onion John?
- Did you like Onion John’s decision near the end of the book? Why or why not?
- Who do you think was the wisest character in this book and why?
If you want a taste of mid-twentieth century Americana combined with a wise attitude toward life, read this book. As a Newbery Medal winner, many libraries still carry it, and you can find it on Amazon.