Monday, March 3, 2008

Joseph Krumgold

...and now Miguel
by Joseph Krumgold
Recommended Age: 8+

This book is the winner of the 1954 Newbery medal which, along with Onion John, makes its author one of the few two-time winners of the American Library Association’s highest honor for children’s literature. Like many of its fellow medalists, this story is set in a culture that is different from most American readers. This probably has less to do with the Hispanic background of its characters and more to do with the culture of shepherds and people who make their living almost entirely from the soil.

Miguel Chavez comes from a large family of shepherds living in northern New Mexico, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. At twelve years old, his dream - his desperate wish, even - is to join his father, uncles, and older brothers in driving the sheep into the mountains for the summer. But it seems, once again, that he will be left behind - too young, not useful enough.

So Miguel tries catching everyone’s attention by being as useful as possible, but this backfires. His only hope now is to pray hard to the patron saint of all farmers everywhere, who is also his village’s particular saint. And wouldn’t you know, San Ysidro comes through for him, but in an unexpected way, taking something Miguel loves away in return for granting him his heart’s desire. Somehow this turns out heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, particularly in the scene that stands at the heart of the whole book, in which Miguel and his brother Gabriel work out what has happened and why it happened.

It’s a fine example of the coming-of-age story told in the simple, somewhat crude but often hauntingly poetic, diction of its young Hispanic narrator. It’s also a very interesting lesson in the realities of farm life, including descriptions of lambing time, sheep shearing, and looking for lost sheep. But finally, it hashes out a philosophy of life that is at once naïve and wise; doubting and believing; religious and superstitious; and most importantly, a breakthrough from boyish selfishness to thinking about others - from the family circle to the wide, wide world.

Onion John
by Joseph Krumgold
Recommended Age: 10+

Father-son love is one of my favorite themes in literature, and this story plays to that strength in an unusual way. You might call it a “father-son love triangle,” meaning nothing kinky by it.

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 father’s 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 John’s interpreter for his friends and family. And though the grown-ups don’t 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 man’s 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 Andy’s 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 you’re only trying to do what’s right for your children?

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