Dead End in Norvelt (by Jack Gantos)

5 08 2012

Jack Gantos is the odd one out when it comes to (children’s books) writers. In his 2003 award-winning autobiographical (YA) novel, Hole in My Life, he lays out how he helped smuggle a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, but was later caught by federal agents, and consequently landed himself in jail. The money he’d supposedly gain from this illegal activity – $10 000 – would about just cover his college tuition money (Gantos wanted to go to a school with a good writing program), so an ideal way to get out of a precarious situation.

Dead End in Norvelt follows the same (semi-)autobiographical vein. Blurbed as a book “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional”, it features an 11-year-old boy called Jack Gantos, who grows up in the small Pennsylvania town of Norvelt in the 1960s, a town built during the Depression as a model community for poor coalmining families and named after Eleanor Roosevelt. In the summer when he turns twelve, Jack is grounded for life because he accidentally fired a bullet from his dad’s Japanese WWII rifle, but most of all, because he went against his mom’s wishes when he cut down her corn crop (his dad needed it for a landing strip!). While mom thinks that the family’s future lies in Norvelt, his dad – a WWII veteran and self-proclaimed commie hater (btw, Jack’s dad is also building a bomb shelter!) – feels that the family should move to Florida to find better opportunities and because “someday [he wanted] to live a life where [he] won’t be bullied by [his] wallet. The only way to get at least a little bit out of his summer is when Jack helps out (or has to help out!) his neighbor, Miss Volker, the town’s official nurse, medical examiner, and obituary writer, all skills which come in handy during this particular summer as Norvelt seems to be plagued by a string of deaths…

Dead End in Norvelt is not just about a boy in the summer between childhood and young adulthood, it’s also about the (hi)story of a town, and the way in which different people look at how history influences our world views. Jack’s mom, for instance, is nostalgic about the town’s past community spirit, when neighbors used to help out each other when they needed it most and through her bartering, she desperately clings to the customs of the past. Jack’s dad on the other hand feels it’s time to move on from the past – something which is even quite literally mentioned in the novel with so many houses literally being picked up and moved to other more thriving towns. Because lots of families are leaving Norvelt, and many of the original Norvelt residents are dying, Miss Volker feels that part of her job is to keep the history of Norvelt alive. In addition to being a nurse and an ME, she’s also the unofficial town historian, linking the death of a Norveltian (?) to events that happened in history, at the same time also teaching  Jack how to respect the past.

This insistence on the importance of history is also what contributed to Dead End in Norvelt not just winning the Newbery Medal, but also the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Dead End in Norvelt deftly combines the history of a boy with the history of a whole community, appealing to a person’s feelings of nostalgia.  What Gantos also manages to do is whipping up an array of unusual characters, which adds a layer of (often black) humor to the mystery of the deaths in Norvelt. Of course, Miss Volker is the one who stands out here (the scene in which Jack witnesses what happens to her hands is legendary!!), but there are other characters who add to the colorful mix: Bunny, Jack’s friend who’s the daughter of the town’s undertaker and  Mr  Spizz, who rides around on his giant tricycle, reporting people to the council, and then there’s also that Hell’s Angel… Add to these characters, Jack’s penchant for getting nosebleeds whenever he gets stressed (looking at him the wrong way might even set it off), Jack Gantos’ offhand way of writing without missing a beat, and this is a novel that will make you chuckle, wonder and reminisce about your own town’s past, and which is a deserved award winner.

Even though Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal (target audience: children), this is a wildly funny, in that tragic-comical way, book that will appeal not just to (middle grade) kids, but to many young adults and the somewhat older adults out there.

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