In search of Onion John

It’s been a while since I read Onion John.  As I recall, I was fourteen then.  Correction; it’s been a geological epoch since I read it.  It’s one of those forgotten classics of children’s literature.  The overall atmosphere reflects the placid and idyllic 1950s.  In retrospect, it unintentionally seems slightly corny.  (This is an effect that I do deliberately with some of my books like Space Vixen Trek Episode 17.)  Still, as charmed of an age as it was, being a little corny and Leave-It-To-Beaverish seems rather like a blessing compared to Clown World poz.

One subplot is the father-son relationship.  They don’t always see eye to eye.  Still, that much was fairly small potatoes as far as conflict goes, and I don’t remember much of that part of it.  The generation gap didn’t get started in earnest until the “kill your parents” 1960s.  (Thanks once again to the Frankfurt School for screwing up our culture!)  The other subplot, of course, is about Onion John himself.

Avast!  There be spoilers!

The titular character is an enigmatic old fellow from an unspecified location which (at the time I read it) I figured was somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Only one of the boys, Andy, can understand him.  It turns out that he has a number of peculiar beliefs, or if you will, superstitions.  Other than that, he lives in a shack up on a hill and collects odds and ends, storing them in bathtubs around the dwelling.  He grows plenty of onions in his garden, of course.

Then Andy’s father organizes the town to provide better living conditions for him.  They tear down the shack and take away his junk collection, which causes him some distress.  Then they build him a modern house.  The problem is that soon after, he tries to kindle the stove with newspaper, since he doesn’t know how to operate modern appliances properly and nobody had the foresight to demonstrate it.  According to my recollection of the story, he dies tragically.  According to other synopses I’ve read, he survives but leaves town to go it alone after they want to build him another house.  Was I remembering incorrectly, or was there was a difference in editions, where the ending was softened?

Again, Onion John is pretty enigmatic, since his origins are a complete mystery.  He comes across somewhat like a slacker, which was out of step with the spirit of the times, though actually he does work some odd jobs.  On the other hand, it turns out that he’s of retirement age, so the fact that he can provide for his own modest needs goes in the plus side of the ledger.

Looking back on it, he seems like a more innocent version of Aqualung, the eponymous character of Jethro Tull’s song, a homeless WWI vet who rasps like Darth Vader because his lungs were scarred during a gas attack.  (WTF were they thinking with this “War to End All Wars” nonsense?)  The song does capture some of the same quiet desperation.  The difference is that Onion John isn’t homeless.  Actually, he built his own place, all by himself.  That worked, until the townspeople decided that wasn’t good enough.

On one side of the tragedy, they meant well, but the problem is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  (So goes the proverb, but I certainly hope the old fellow had a better final destination.)  On the other side, one could say that the townspeople forced a harmless eccentric to conform, but he just couldn’t cope.  If I recall correctly, they didn’t ask him about tearing down his place and putting up a new one; it was pretty much a surprise.  He was happy the way he was.  They could’ve just let him spend the rest of his days as he wished.

A few clues about Onion John

The surprising thing about this was that the basic plot was nonfiction.  Names and location were changed.  I didn’t know this until fairly recently.  Some of that is discussed in the article “They Killed Him with Kindness. Literally.”  Another discussion, which ties up some of the loose ends posed by that one, is a digression in the bottom third of a post about Louisville, Nebraska.  That one even has a picture of the headstone for his grave:

UHAN KLEBAN
ONION JOHN
1882-1955

Taking the previous two mentions at face value, he’d been around for a while, arriving in the small town of Belvidere, New Jersey probably during or before the 1930s.  The stove accident really happened, and I’m sad to relate that it was fatal.  The fact that this was real makes it all the more poignant.  These items, along with a couple of real-life anecdotes about him, provide a little more depth to the picture.  I’ll add a few other observations.

His name is quite unique indeed, and a little online searching helped to spot where he likely was from.  Kleban is a rare name of Ashkenazi origin.  It probably means “baker”, and I’d bet that Klobuchar (a more famous name lately) does too.  It’s most common in Ukraine and Belarus.  The name Uhan is even rarer, but might be a phonetic or variant spelling of the Estonian name Juhan.  That does indeed mean John!  If he didn’t actually come from Estonia, then it’s likely that he came from either Belarus or perhaps Poland’s former territories east of the Curzon Line.  However, if one goes back far enough, it was all the Russian Empire.

Given the facts of history, as well as immigration policy and trends, I’d speculate he arrived in the USA during the 1900s or early 1910s.  (In other words, he was fortunate enough to skip some interesting times.)  His lack of proficiency in English argues against an earlier arrival; if he’d gotten here as a teenager, he would’ve had the immersion experience in school.  The language he speaks – which only one kid eventually deciphered – remains a mystery, since several were in use in the part of the world he likely came from.  My bet is a patois of Yiddish and extremely accented English.  It would’ve been considerably harder, for example, for Andy to figure out Polish.

So maybe that’s a little more to go on.  Maybe someone with the interest and resources might be able to dig through immigration records.  Perhaps Onion John came to NYC via Ellis Island, then held some factory work for a while until it dried up during the Great Depression.  Then he became a hobo, like so many others back then, and went on walkabout until he came to Belvidere, NJ and managed to get by doing day labor and eventually become a permanent fixture of the community.  Although that’s the likeliest scenario, we’re back to the realm of pure speculation.

In search of Onion John

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