Thursday, July 28, 2011

Henry 3 by Joseph Krumgold

(hardcover and paperback reissue)

Henry 3 is a fascinating book about a boy coming of age on Long Island. It is a perceptively told story from a kid's perspective of life in the suburbs circa the 1960's. It concerns this boy's search for masculinity in a town that is dominated by women. Similar to another Jewish writer, Bruce Jay Friedman and his debut novel Stern (1962), Krumgold's portrayal of Long Island is that of a commuter land where men have disappeared to work unsatisfying jobs in the city. Henry 3 deals with the themes of imagination, innocence, maturity and community in the face of disaster.
Henry 3 is very much a book about an adolescent's search for masculinity in a matriarchy. The book begins with an unusual opening. It is Henry attempting to befriend a bully named Fletch who initially wants nothing more than to beat him up. Henry's intelligence and sympathy towards the bully as outsider only confuses him. Fletch is an outcast in the town mostly because his grandfather's goals are to return the town to the farming community that it once was. This stands in the way of gentrifying and the American suburban dream. Families like Henry 3's represent a threat to an older, simpler time. While Fletch, on the other hand, represents someone without the modern family's constraints. Both of his parents were killed in a sense by progress through dying in an auto wreck. Part of this idealism is a plea to either transform suburbia or leave it behind. It is no doubt , this was a subject close to Krumgold's heart as he himself lived on a New Jersey farm for a number of years.
Henry is an extraordinarily intelligent boy who after moving to the suburbs, begins questioning the status of his father. His dad is in a position of promoting war-related products such as bomb shelters. When he sees his father in his office, acting like a puppet to the command of a boss, he begins to lose respect for him. Henry faces a new dilemma in how to become a man without guidance from a male figure. Fletcher, on the opposite side of things, adopts Henry's mother as his own and the two boys become, in a sense, brothers.
Both the boys are faced with a solution to their dilemma when a more urgent tragedy strikes their community. A hurricane, “Holy Hannah”, hits and Henry's father is forced into community obligation by acting in a heroic manner. This causes Henry guilt about the way he has begun to view his dad. Sacrifices are made on the way to adulthood. In this case, Henry does not truly mature until he has experienced both love and pain.

Henry cares and respects his parents but he also needs and wants to make his own decisions. Like his two other coming-of-age tales, Krumgold takes a modern approach to rewriting the structure of a fairy tale in a modern context. In this case it is the Hero Who IS Given Three Puzzles to Solve. I see the sentiment and setting of Henry 3 as a predecessor to the new wave of Young Adult books that debuted a year later in 1968. It happens to be one of my favorite children's books of all time, and I don't think I'd be too far off in calling it one of the first examples of a new type of popular literature aimed at teenagers.

On Henry 3, one reviewer (Maples) wrote: "Has Mr. Krumgold written a sociological treatise or a story for children? Despite the underlying concern with social issues and moral values, this is a warm and engaging story about a special boy, his friends and, most of all, his parents. . . . Mr. Krumgold's primary concern is with the beauty and humor and sadness of human aspirations and the human condition; consequently his characters, who speak in a spontaneous and wonderfully revealing manner, engross us in a personal and individual way simply as people working out their destinies, rather than as symbols manipulated to demonstrate a theory."

The author Jospeph Krumgold, who is most well known for his award-winning children's books, didn't turn to writing for this audience until mid life. He was born in 1908. His father Henry was a movie house operator and exhibitor and his older brother accompanied the silent films on organ. By the time Krumgold was 12 years old, he decided on a career in film. He wrote a number of screenplays in Hollywood when "talkies" first gained popularity between 1930-1945. An example of one of these films, Lady Behave, can be seen below. His first adult novel, Thanks to Murder, was published in 1935 by the Vanguard Press. Working in the Office of War Information during WW II, Krumgold became interested in traveling and documenting real places and people. This resulted in him producing several movies and directing a handful of documentaries. In 1947 he moved to Israel with his wife Helen Litwin where he was associated with Palestine films. He made 15 films while in Israel including The House In The Desert which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. His luck with prizes though, was just beginning. When he returned to the United States in 1952, he owned and operated his own production company through 1960. During this time, he lived with his wife and son, Adam, on a 120 acre farm in Hope, New Jersey. His next novel, and his debut book for children, was And Now Miguel, first published in 1953. It was based on the screenplay of a documentary he made with the same title that took place outside of Taos, New Mexico. The Thomas J. Kromwell company commissioned the book and it ended up winning the prestigious Newbery Award.

And Now Miguel would be the first in the series of coming-of-age tales that Krumgold would write. Miguel Chavez lives outside of Taos near the Sandre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. He belongs to a shephard family, a tradition begun by his grandfather. Every summer the men take the sheep up into the mountains. Miguel, no longer feeling like a carefree child, becomes determined to prove that he is ready to make his journey. Krumgold tells a year in the life of Miguel in Miguel's own voice. While Miguel is often rewarded in school with stars and grades, no one ever seems to acknowledge his help on the range. For Miguel, this is of more importance. In his attempt to earn the respect of his elders, his journey up into the mountains becomes a rite of passage.

The second book Onion John, which takes place on a New Jersey farm, was published in 1958. Amazingly, Krumgold again won the Newbury for this book in 1960. The story centers on the small town's oddest inhabitant, the eccentric old man named Onion John. Andy Rusch, the 12 year old protagonist, is the only one who seems to understand John. While others in the town, such as Andy's father, want to help John, it turns out that a little help can lead to a lot of trouble. John symbolizes all that is mythical about childhood. His way of life seems impractical to the adult world. Andy understand him because he too is a child. It is only when Andy becomes an adult that he begins to doubt John, ultimately driving him away.

The last book, Henry 3, which has a suburban setting was published in 1967. Because it never won an award, it's the least well known of the three. It's a shame though. To me, it's Krumgold's greatest work. Krumgold only published one additional book, after the ones already mentioned. He passed on in 1980 at the age of 72.

Henry 3 is illustrated throughout by cover artist Alvin Smith, who is one of my favorite illustrators from this time period. His work can also be seen in two other books I enjoyed immensely: Frank Bonham's The Nitty Gritty, and Maia Wojciechowska's Shadow of a Bull. It's interesting to me because both of these books are often misclassified as "children's books" but like Henry 3, they may be more appropriately classic young adult literature. For example, Shadow of a Bull is also about a boy's search for identity and masculinity. And The Nitty Gritty is one of Bonham's best which I wrote about here in a previous entry.
I tried searching for more info. about Alvin Smith, but came across very little. A couple of other book covers I found that he illustrated are below.


  1. Thanks so much for this extensive bio of Joseph Krumgold! I'm doing some research about a group of writers/artists/musicians/dancers in Los Angeles in the 30s and have been trying to read all the books he's written. I just finished Henry 3 yesterday and was dazzled by it - and so taken with how strong it was, and (to me) how different from other books of the time. My husband and I were middle schoolers in the 60s and we don't remember ever reading anything resembling this, in the 60s. I'm wondering, as a product of the South, if the book was pulled from public libraries at a certain point because pacifism was perhaps less acceptable? What are your thoughts on that? I did look for the book in town and discovered that it's not available through a single public library in our state - I had to get it from the children's section of an area state university. Thanks again for the bio, and I'm looking forward to watching Lady Behave! All the best, Nancy Cooper

    1. I appreciate your feedback. I always felt that Henry 3 was a book with a strong message. To me, it deals with modernization and emasculation in urban - suburban - environments. Popular authors at the time and of a similar age, like William Inge, were writing about this subject too. But wasn't Krumgold bold to touch upon this heavy subject manner in a more lighthearted way through children's literature? I call it "Krumgold's Trilogy" because all three of his children's books deal with the subject of masculinity and being an outsider.