Onion John is set in the late 1950s in the quiet rural town of Serenity, near the Munkachunk Mountains and Musconetty Creek. This fictional community is patterned after Belvidere, New Jersey, a county seat near Krumgold's home with a population of about twenty-six hundred. This area, which was once settled by German Moravians, is near the edge of the Poconos Mountains.
A typical small town, Serenity boasts one hardware store, a drug store where boys congregate for ice cream, an amateur newspaper, an enthusiastic Little League baseball team, and an active Rotary Club. The surrounding land, while hilly and stony, supports flourishing orchards and gardens.
Onion John lives on the outskirts of town in a dilapidated house built of piled-up stones. This house has four bathtubs but no electricity or running water. The Serenity garbage dump, located next to the baseball diamond, is Onion John's source of food and supplies.
It is significant that Onion John takes place in the 1950s, for the scientific advancements and dreams of the era greatly influence the characters of the story. Technology, with new devices such as electric stoves and automatic door-openers, has changed many of the small details of daily life. The possibility of sending a man to the moon alters the characters' understanding of the universe and their vision of the future. Some people, such as Andy's father, welcome these changes. Others, such as Onion John,...
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Onion John is a humorous and fastmoving story peopled with vivid and lively characters. Written from the point of view of twelve-year-old Andy, the novel uses realistically boyish language; casual humor and colorful descriptions engage the reader in the actions and emotions of the story. The story includes bits of trivia, such as information about the origins of Halloween, which add to the lighthearted mood. The balanced plot unifies the novel; questions raised in the opening chapters are repeated and answered in the concluding pages.
Krumgold uses irony, particularly in relationship to Andy's father and Onion John, to reveal his characters' different attitudes. Mr. Rusch believes that the greatest gift he can give his son is to enable him to "go to the moon," while Onion John interprets that wish as an immeasurable insult: "I've never heard of any father who would send his only son to the moon!" It is ironic that Mr. Rusch, who has seemed very opinionated throughout most of the book, ends up advising others to "keep an open mind." While Onion John wishes to leave Serenity because of the evil he feels exists in the community, Andy's father says he should stay so that people will "keep on being goodhearted." Another example of irony is that Onion John's new house is destroyed when he attempts to use the electric stove, an appliance he had not wanted in the first place. Krumgold comments that the fire might have been the "best thing" to happen to...
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Some readers may feel that Krumgold portrays women negatively in Onion John. The main characters in the novel are all male. Andy's mother is pictured as a gentle but weak housewife who fears ghosts; her only significant role is to explain her husband's actions and feelings to her son. Andy appears to feel that women are not perceptive or bright. He decides, for example, that it would be too difficult to explain Onion John's plan for a rain procession in a way that Eechee's mother could understand. The details of the rain procession also contain a stereotypical picture of women. Ancient custom involved the sacrifice of a beautiful virgin, who was thrown into a river with a stone tied to her neck; but the "modern way" is to throw the most important man in the procession into a river without a stone so that he can "do the job" and still get out alive.
One could argue that Krumgold portrays immigrants in a negative light. Onion John is superstitious, and many of the townspeople regard him as ignorant and stubborn. His eccentricity may stem from his unwillingness to take on new ways of life, or it might indicate a mental handicap. The adults in the story patronize him, treating him more as a "project" than as a person. But because Andy tells the story, readers are more likely to identify with his point of view, and he respects Onion John and resents the other adults' attempts to change Onion John's image.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How are the adult spectators at the Little League Pennant game inconsistent in their attitudes about winning and losing?
2. How does Andy's opinion about Ernie Miller, editor of The Lamp, change during the course of the novel? What brings about this change?
3. According to Andy's father, how can a person tell the difference between superstition and fact, coincidence and cause? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
4. Onion John makes several references to "shadows." What do you think shadows symbolize for him, and how does he feel about them?
5. Why do you think Andy's parents approve of the magic show at the Rotary Club on Halloween but disapprove of Onion John's magic in their basement that night?
6. What do you think Onion John means when he says a bathtub is a "beautiful statue of a hole in the ground"? Why does he want to have so many bathtubs in his house?
7. How does Onion John feel about getting a new house? How does Andy feel about it? How does Onion John "ruin things" during the move? Why does he cry when he sees the new house?
8. Why do you think Andy insists that the newspaper reporter be told that Onion John has named Andy's father as his best friend? How do you think Andy feels about this? Who would you say is really Onion John's best friend?
9. Why does Andy say that he caused the fire at Onion John's house? Why does Andy say that the fire might...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Trace the changes that Andy, Onion John, and Mr. Rusch undergo during the course of the novel. What causes these changes? Who would you say changes the least and why?
2. What does the moon symbolize in the story?
3. Research how people around the world, and throughout history, have tried to "make rain." How do they compare in method and degree of success?
4. Compare the attitudes that Andy and his father have toward the meaning of success and failure. What is the basis for each person's opinion?
5. Describe the relationship that exists between Mr. Rusch and Onion John. How do they interact with one another? How does this relationship affect their personal lives and the lives of people around them?
6. Do you think Onion John Day was a good idea? What were some positive and negative results of this project? Overall, do you believe it did more harm or good? Why?
7. According to the various characters in the story, what are happiness and unhappiness? What causes these emotions?
8. What is Mr. Rusch's attitude about decision-making? What advice would he give on making good decisions? Do you think he follows his own advice in handling problems? Why or why not? What is his opinion concerning the ability of young people to make good decisions? Do you agree or disagree?
9. Make a list of Onion John's superstitions and his reasoning behind each belief. How does modern society,...
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Onion John can be considered part of a trilogy that shows how boys grow up in three different areas of American society. Taken as a whole, the three books provide an intimate picture of the relationship between boys and their fathers. Each story shows how families can attempt to understand one another and can learn to respect the attitudes and values of persons who are very different from themselves.
While Onion John focuses on life in a small town, And Now Miguel is the story of Miguel Chavez, a thoughtful twelveyear- old shepherd from Taos, New Mexico. Miguel, who lives in a very religious family, longs to accompany the men when they take the sheep to graze on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In his adventures with his family and the flocks, Miguel begins to understand that the values and wisdom of past generations are important to his own life. This novel is noted for its simple and poetic dialogue and for its detailed information on sheep raising.
And Now Miguel is based on a true story. Krumgold visited Miguel's family, then wrote and directed a documentary film about them. The film, which was translated into fifteen languages, was distributed around the world by the State Department. In 1966 Universal Pictures remade And Now Miguel into a movie directed by James B. Clark.
In the third book of the trilogy, Henry 3, Krumgold centers on life in Crestview, a suburb of a large city. Henry...
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For Further Reference
Bordages, Asa. "Joseph Krumgold." In Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman. Boston: Horn Book, 1965. This article provides biographical information as well as a detailed description of Krumgold's hometown, Hope, New Jersey.
Krumgold, Joseph. "Archetypes of the Twentieth Century." School Library Journal (October 1968): 112-115. Krumgold explains the relationship between And Now Miguel, Onion John, and Henry 3, and compares these stories to well known fairy tales. This article gives an excellent summary of the themes of his novels.
"Newbery Award Acceptance." In Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-1965, edited by Lee Kingman. Boston: Horn Book, 1965. This speech explains Krumgold's philosophy about writing and gives the background for the writing of Onion John.
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