First off, let it be known that Onion John won the 1960 Newbery Medal, making its author the first to win twice (see …and Now Miguel). Set in a small New Jersey town called Serenity, the tale is told by young Andy Rusch who would like nothing better than to follow in his hardware storekeeper fathers footsteps. But his Dad has dreams for Andy: M.I.T. dreams; NASA dreams; Moon-lander dreams.
Enter Onion John, the old eccentric who lives outside of town, managing for himself in a remarkable old-world way, and living by a parcel of remarkable old-world traditions (or superstitions, depending on how you look at them). No one can understand a word he says, except Good day! Until Andy, that is.
Soon Andy becomes Johns interpreter for his friends and family. And though the grown-ups dont approve of the strange rituals that Onion John believes in, the kids get a kick out of them: his spooky Halloween traditions, his rain-making procession, and so on. At first it looks as if Onion John may come between Andy and his father, but Dad takes it in his head that he can help Onion John. He pulls together the whole community to pitch in and rebuild the old mans house.
All this goodwill and sincere desire to help ought to come out right. Right? Well, not for Onion John. It turns out that the good people of Serenity, with the best of intentions, almost literally kill him with kindness. And so it looks like Onion John must run for it before the town can do him another good turn. Now the question becomes, will Andy go with him? Will he escape from the good things his father has planned for him, so he can choose for himself?
This end of this story is like the river running under the ice: it seems so simple and smooth on top, but underneath it has depths and moves in unexpected ways. The bittersweet, ironic story of Andys friendship with Onion John turns out to be merely a cover for a deeper story about a father and son coming to understand each other and themselves. Original, thoughtful, moving and entertaining, it also gives you pause to consider who is helping whom when you offer the cup of kindness and can you go wrong when youre only trying to do whats right for your children?