Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos
From the jacket: “Being grounded has never been so deadly! Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt portrays an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is ‘grounded for life’ by his feuding parents. But plenty of adventure is coming Jack’s way once his mother loans him out to help a feisty old neighbor with an unusual activity involving the newly dead and the long departed … a motorcycle gang and a man on a trike … as well as twisted promises and possibly murder.”
My take: This middle-grade book was a quick, but enjoyable summer read that I polished off on in a single evening en route to Salt Lake City (accompanied by two cds of music my dad put together highlighting the hits of 1962, the year the book takes place). While the fictionalized Jack Gantos is figuring out who he is and what he wants to over the course of the book, author Jack Gantos is schooling us in the history of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a town commissioned by the federal government as part of the New Deal. The town consisted of 250 homesteads (sold to families based on an application system) intended to offer subsistence farming to miners who’d been laid off during the Depression. The first lady insisted that each house be outfitted with electricity, interior plumbing, and even laundry facilities, making her the patron saint of the village and inspiring its name.
But 30 years later, when the story is set, Norvelt is hurting. Jobs are scarce. Homes stand abandoned and residents have died off or fled in search of work.
At the outset of the summer Jack Gantos turns 12, he “borrows” the unloaded Japanese rifle his father brought home from the war, pretends to take aim at the enemies on the screen of the drive-in across the valley, and pulls the trigger. When the gun fires, both Jack and his mother are shocked and Jack finds himself grounded for the summer. His only parole? Helping his elderly neighbor, Miss Voelker, whose hands are so arthritic that she needs to soak them in a hot paraffin bath to get any use out of them.
Miss Voelker has retired as town nurse, but remains Norvelt’s medical examiner and obituary writer, jobs she was tasked with by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt herself at town’s founding. Her recollection for local lore is unparalleled and her ability to tie local lives to world history (in those obituaries) impressive, if somewhat … elastic.
No longer able to type the obituaries herself, she first enlists Jack, who suffers from chronic nosebleeds and timidity, to do them for her, then later asks him to chauffeur her around town to the homes of the recently departed, who seem to be dropping with alarming frequency this year.
Jack, though hesitant, is glad to escape home whenever he can, as his parents seem perpetually angry at each other and at him and at the stresses of living in a down-on-its-luck town that’s fading away (literally: the houses are being towed elsewhere). His best friend, Bunny, daughter of the town mortician, is annoyed with his inability to do things with her (including playing on their already several-players-short baseball team). Summertime when you’re a kid lasts forever after all.
Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award in 2012, which surprised me, because at first the book seems awfully light for such prestigious honors. But upon reflection, its narrator’s casual style and humor mask exactly how much history is packed between its covers, making it an excellent hook for getting kids interested in American history without making it obvious; rest assured they (and you) will be entertained and effortlessly educated by this book.
Pages: 384 (including appendices)
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