Dead End in Norvelt Paperback – 29 Mar 2012
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"This is a brilliant book, full of history, mystery, and laughs. It reminded me of my small-town childhood, although my small town was never as delightfully weird as Norvelt" (Dave Barry)
"A bit of autobiography works its way into all of Gantos's work, but he one-ups himself in this wildly entertaining meld of truth and fiction by naming the main character . . . Jackie Gantos" (Publishers Weekly)
"Gantos, as always, delivers bushels of food for thought and plenty of outright guffaws" (Booklist)
"A fast-paced and witty read" (School Library Journal)
A gripping, hilarious and wildly imaginative tale about one of the strangest towns you'll ever visit.
Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012. Shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2013
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Top Customer Reviews
Closer to home, Jack's caught between his parents as his dad wants to build his own plane and a runway over land where his mum plants corn for Norvelt's impoverished residents. Then there's Jack's nosebleeds, which come on at the slightest stress but which his parents can't afford the medical fees to sort out. The last thing Jack needs is to suspect that there's a serial killer at work in Norvelt, a serial killer who may just become interested in Jack ...
Jack Gantos's middle grade novel is a fictionalised autobiography that won the Newbery Medal in 2012. Although there are strong themes of history and the importance of reading, the book in general didn't work for me, mainly because the plot is flimsy and has an open-ending.
The strongest character in the book is Miss Walker. A strong, no-nonsense woman, she uses the promise she made to Eleanor Roosevelt when Norvelt was first built as a reason to reject the advances of Mr Spizz, the town busybody who's been in love with her for decades. She teaches Jack the importance of historical events and keeping true to the past. Perhaps inevitably, Jack suffers in contrast.Read more ›
Not sure I'd have said it was a worthy Newbery winner but on the whole an original story and worth a read.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Miss Volker is a former chief nurse and now the medical examiner of the town of Norvelt, a New Deal community established in 1934 to give hardworking people a helping hand. Norvelt is named after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. At the time of her appointment, Miss Volker promised Mrs. Roosevelt that she would keep health records on the original 250 families.
As the original residents continue to move out or die off, Miss Volker composes their final health reports --- but in this case it's their obituaries. Because her crippling arthritis has rendered her unable to write or type, Jack has been "volunteered" to help out by writing out and typing the obituaries and delivering them to the editor of the Norvelt News. For Miss Volker and many of the residents, the obituaries are more than records of deaths; they are historical narratives of the deceased lives and how they impacted the town of Norvelt.
Norvelt is populated with colorful characters. There's Bunny Huffer, Jack's best friend, who is the daughter of the town's undertaker. Unlike Jack, Bunny isn't squeamish being around dead bodies, and she likes to play pranks. Mr. Edwin Spizz is the town busybody who rides around on an adult tricycle, spying on neighbors and reporting them to the community council. Mr. Spizz also has had his eye on Miss Volker since 1912, but she has no use for him.
Jack's dad is a World War II veteran who wants to leave Norvelt for somewhere with better opportunities. In the meantime, Mr. Gantos is preparing to fight the Russian Commies whom he believes are poised to attack the United States. As part of Jack's punishment, he helps his dad build a fallout shelter, while Mr. Gantos paves a runway for his homemade airplane.
Mrs. Gantos is on the other end of the political spectrum. She misses the old Norvelt community spirit of neighbor helping neighbor. Jack is stuck in the middle while his mom and dad squabble over their values and what is to become of their future. When not stopping his nosebleeds, helping Miss Volker becomes his summer salvation. By writing obituaries for her, Jack become curious about the past and learns to respect history.
As the summer stretches on and the body count rises, Jack begins to wonder if there is a curse on Norvelt. Jack suspects something sinister is going on, and if he doesn't help get to the bottom of the mystery, he or those close to him could be in serious trouble.
In DEAD END IN NORVELT, critically acclaimed writer Jack Gantos skillfully combines autobiography and fiction, along with the right touches of history, mystery and humor. With a deft touch, he weaves 20th-century American history into the story line along with wonderfully wacky scenes and delightfully memorable characters.
Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt
Young Jack Gantos is having the world's worst summer. After being grounded for getting in the middle of a fight between his parents, he's destined to spend a summer confined to his room reading history, and helping his dad dig a bomb shelter. It's 1962 and Norvelt is a Roosevelt town filled with aging townspeople, most notably Miss Volker, the official town medical examiner. It's her job to write the obituaries, and since she suffers from arthritis, it's Jack's job to help her. These two make quite the team and their interactions provide a lot of the humor in the book. Add in Jack's dad who is constantly talking about the communist threat, and Jack's mom who believes in communal living and the barter system, and you can see the potential for quite a story. The dialogue is crisp and often hilarious, and when Jack finds himself in the middle of a town arson spree, and later a spectator to a series of unexplained deaths, what starts out as the world's worst summer turns into a summer to remember.
Jack is a lovable character, even with all those impressive nosebleeds. He's a true pleasure to read, and I found myself really admiring his sense of adventure and his sometimes misguided attempts to do the right thing. Through his eyes we get to see snippets of history via his summer time reading. Through the author's flawless depictions of time and place, we get a solid look back at 1962 when Japanese war souvenirs were stored in the barn, you knew all of your neighbors, and going to the drive-in was a big deal.
Despite its sometimes odd pacing, this is a great book that will hold tons of appeal for any young or adult reader ages 12 and up. Is it a boring Newberry read? No way! With more blood than any Stephen King thriller, mysterious deaths, Hell's Angels, Japanese sniper rifles, and poison chocolates, what could be more exciting?
1962, Norvelt, PA. It's a town that owes its existence to Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom it is named) and the residence of one young Jack Gantos. A kid with a perpetually bleeding proboscis, Jack's looking forward to having an awesome summer. That is, before his mother forces him to help out old Miss Volker write the town's obituaries. Before he's grounded for mowing down his mom's corn (because his dad told him to, and how fair is that?). Before it seems as though the whole summer might pass him by. Fortunately, Jack finds his time with Miss Volker to be fascinating, and that's before all the little old ladies in town start dying off at an remarkably quickfire rate. Is there something natural or unnatural behind these deaths? And more importantly, will Jack ever get to play an honest game of baseball under the shining sun ever again?
Here's a quick tip on how you can determine if a writer's any good. Generally speaking, if you can get to page three and already know the personalities of four different characters exquisitely well, that's a writer to keep an eye on. Gantos does precisely that with this book too. By the fourth page you've a good sense of your narrator (a nose-bleeder who pities a pony and likes a good war movie), his mother (helpful to neighbors, critical of her son's behavior, with her own projects to take care of), his uncle (a "confused jerk", or so says his sister), and his father (a former navy man who once stripped dead Japanese soldiers of their weapons and keepsakes). It's quick, it's fast, it's easy. Without lingering, Gantos can give you snapshot after snapshot of a character's qualities, both good and bad.
I'm a sucker for a good theme and though I know that Dead End in Norvelt probably wasn't Mr. Gantos's first choice of a title, it may suit the book to a certain extent. Not too long ago there were a couple middle grade books set in or around funeral homes (Each Little Bird That Sings, The Funeral Director's Son, etc.). Gantos doesn't go quite that far, but a funeral home does play a role in this book and death becomes one of two themes here. I mean, think about it. From the idea of a town that is dying (dramatically and quickly) to the people in that town that die, to the rats and vermin in Miss Volker's basement, to the perpetual obituaries, to the historical deaths recounted gloriously, there's a whole lotta dying going on here. Not that you'd initially notice, I think. Really,
The other theme? There's a bit the comic Eddie Izzard does about Scooby-Doo that comes immediately to mind. Izzard argues that Shaggy and Scooby are significant literary characters because they are cowards and you root for them. "And is there any other character out there, a cowardly character, that you root for in the same way?" Falstaff, maybe, but there's a melancholy to him that sort of rules him out. Cowardice is a great theme of Novelt too, but one could easily argue that though the main character might describe himself as a coward (dead people do nothing for him) the reader could see that the opposite is the case. Consider the role of the Hell's Angels in this book. They are built to look tough (and, indeed, they make for fantastic literary villains since unlike a lot of demonized groups of this time period the Angels didn't have an underlying philosophy to make them historically sympathetic). They wear tough clothes and get into fights and look mean. Yet Miss Volker puts her finger on it when she calls them cowards. They sneak into small towns burning down buildings just for the heck of it. They beat up old men because there's no chance of retribution. They are cowards. Jack, in contrast, is willing to do what is frightening to him. The Angels could hardly say as much.
Of course the whole reason to come to this book in the first place is to bear witness to the poetry of the language. Individual lines would just jump out at me and demand to be noticed. Lines like "Something had to be wrong with me, but one really good advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can't afford to go to the doctor and get bad news." Even better: ". . . if you think about it a refrigerator is just a coffin for food that stands upright." Or the line from Jack's friend who stares at his incoming irate mother while his nose bleeds: "Why are you standing around like vampire bait?" There are a million good lines in this book. These are just some of my own personal favs.
Some folks will be turned off by the less than enticing details surrounding the book. The dead bodies, the blood that pours from Jack's nose like a faucet, etc. Others will be fine with that but will find the ending of the story a bit darker than they'd expected. I had no problems with any of these, and I don't think most kids will either. What I did have a small problem with was the fact that though the book is set in the post-WWII era, Jack is one heckuva forward thinking guy. The kind of kid who sides with the Aztecs when he reads about their slaughter at the hands of the Spaniards. I'd like to think that the kid would be that liberal in his history reading, but frankly I'm not so sure. I mean, it's not like he has that many influences in his life that would inform such thoughts. His father, sure as heck, wouldn't be encouraging Jack to think that way. Dunno. Seemed a bit out of place in an otherwise consistent novel.
In the Preface, Mr. Gantos does not care to specify which elements of this story have their basis in truth and which have their basis in far-flung fiction. I suspect you'll be able to parse the two in your own mind, even while you sit back and admire the man's storytelling skills. By and large, the book is built for a stage production. You've a limited number of sets and a small manageable cast. Kids, however, will be most intrigued by the book if you hook them on the darker elements. The sheer gushing torrents of blood (this has got to be the most inadvertent blood-soaked book of the year), the deaths, and even the mystery, when told properly, should lure them in. It's not an easy book, but it does make for a compelling story, in spite of the protagonist's limited movements. I walked into this title looking for an explanation of what makes Jack Gantos tick. I never found my answer. Instead, I found a book I can read and enjoy and recommend ad nauseum. And as trades go, that one sounds like a good deal to me.
For ages 10 and up.
So, Jack, the protagonist in DEAD END IN NORVELT, gets into trouble and gets grounded. After all, he's just a young boy and he needs to learn a lesson from his errors. Or not. First, he's grounded for firing a souvenir Japanese rifle of his father's --- Why the heck (cheese us crust, by the way, as a euphemism, is pathetic) does Jack have access to the gun in the first place? --- then he gets in trouble for mowing his mother's corn down --- After his father told him to do it. --- then he gets in trouble for something else, and something else, and something else, etc. The cycle repeats itself again and again, tirelessly, tiresomely. And most of the time, Jack's not entirely at fault for the trouble he gets into, but nobody else (eg. his parents and mentors) seems to take any responsibility at all for him getting into trouble. For heaven sakes, the adults have him driving a car around all over with an eighty-year-old mentor, Mrs. Volker, in it without him being old enough to do so or having a driver's license. No biggie.
Over against that scenario of being grounded for getting into trouble, Jack's nose bleeds. Then it bleeds some more and some more and some more, etc. Jack doesn't ever seem to get any help from his parents for his bloody nose (or much else). It's not the type of trouble that they take action to help him out with. Instead, they send him off to Volker, the old-lady obituary-compiler of all the old people dying off in the dead end town. Volker suffers from crippling arthritis; her hands operate like the extremities of a crab. She melts wax to dip them in to get enough relief to stick a sharp instrument up Jack's nose to cauterize his blood vessels.
Caricatures. The characters in DEAD END IN NORVELT seem more like caricatures rather than fleshed out individuals who are real. The adults, for example, are substantially portrayed as selfish and self-interested, even when shown to have compassion for others. They have agendas, and they pursue their agendas to the exclusion of looking after the welfare and benefit of their kids. Dad: A bomb shelter. An airplane. A runway. Mom: Take care of the poor and elderly. Stay grounded. Mrs. Volker: Write the obituaries. Deride the tricycle guy. Etc.
Bottom line, the book's a mortuary, and you know what you'll find there: dead people. And that's where it all ends.
I had read OKAY FOR NOW some time ago and had hoped it would win the Newbery. When DEAD END IN NORVELT won, I had to read it for comparison's sake. I'm glad I did, but it hasn't changed my evaluation.
Walt Eddy wrote ALEJANDRO THE GREAT.
The main character is grounded the entire summer, his few escapes used to write obituaries for one of Norvelt's last living original citizens; the reader feels equally grounded as the slow pacing and painful narration of the author, who is clearly not a voice actor, attempts to create distinct characters.
It has plenty of charm, very little action (in any sense of the word), and at times feels like a Grandpa Simpson rant, though the characters are lovingly written to fit within the quaint, sleepy town.
Not for me, but this book does have its moments. Had it been read by a real performer, it might have added a star to my review.