Ellen Lewis Buell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

Ever since Huck Finn and Jim rafted down the Mississippi a popular theme among writers has been the friendship of a boy with a philosophic man, who may be an eccentric, an outcast or a recluse. It is a rare relationship—not many boys today have the time or the opportunity for one, but in fiction it can still be … a prospective theme….

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The title character in Joseph Krumgold's "Onion John" is a robustly individual soul, a small-town handyman who uses the town dump as his supermarket, has four bathtubs in his one-room shack and has, also, a fund of esoteric knowledge irresistible to young boys…. Once 12-year-old Andy … understands Onion John's complicated English the two become best friends, and this irritates Andy's father, who has his own plans for his son—he is to be a scientist and away with all these superstitions. Andy is caught between his father's love, his insistence upon a rational way of life and the wonderful come-day, go-day self-reliance of John, who is simple but no simpleton, good and wise. When Andy's father tries to remodel John along twentieth-century lines, the situation gets really complicated and suddenly, almost ruefully, Andy finds he has grown up.

Mr. Krumgold … tells all this with wit and comedy, some wry, good-natured satire on conventional do-gooders and a great deal of sympathy for all concerned. Never mind if the stage manager's hand sometimes shows; he has given the serious reader a lot to think about. (p. 16)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 3, 1960.

[Onion John] is certainly one of the distinguished books of our time with all the literary finesse and perceptiveness of "Miguel" and stronger story appeal. The problems it deals with are basic: how understanding can we be of the bits of alien culture and superstition an immigrant clings to? Can we realize that "what we think is proper and what John thinks is proper, they're two different things. What are we trying to prove to him, that he's wrong?" How far may a father influence his son in passing on career dreams of his own? How does a 12-year-old boy meet his father on a man-to-man basis after a conscientious struggle inside?… [The] writing has dignity and strength. There is conflict, drama, and excellent character portrayal. There should be more of this kind of realism in children's books. (p. 147)

Junior Libraries (reprinted from the March, 1960 issue of Junior Libraries, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1960), March, 1960.

In Onion John Mr. Krumgold has established a character worth cherishing in a materially-minded world for he cares nothing for the trimmings of civilisation, and though he may be a trifle cracked on the subject of spells and magic formula he is on the other hand completely self-sufficient…. Local Rotary builds him a new house with all mod. con. which John's unfamiliarity with modern living promptly reduces to ashes. Whose fault was it? Was it really right to transfer John into an environment for which he was temperamentally unsuited? Was he best left to his life of comparative squalor and drifting activity? Within his portrait of an American small town and character-studies of John and Andy, the author poses these questions without imposing on the reader any sociological clap-trap…. One feels the author has something to say which here and there a sensitive reader will absorb. (p. 169)

The Junior Bookshelf, July, 1964.

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