Skip to main content

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, 384 pp, RL 4

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal in 2012. Set in Norvelt, PA, in 1962, Gantos has written a fantastic, funny, thought provoking novel. If you don't already know, Norvelt, PA (scroll to the bottom of the review for pictures and links to a great article) is a real town and Jack, the twelve-year-old narrator is none other than Jack Gantos. I almost feel like Dead End in Norvelt is three stories in one and they are all held together by the fantastic narrative voice of Jack.

As the novel begins, summer vacation has just started and Jack is standing on top of the picnic table in his backyard, his father's souvenir from his time fighting in WWII, a Japanese sniper rifle, perched on Jack's shoulder and aimed at the screen of the drive-in movie theater across town that happens to be showing a war movie. Jack takes aim and fires, stunned to realize that the gun he was sure was not loaded has a bullet in the chamber. A bloody nose (common occurrence for Jack) and ambulance sirens follow the surprise shot and Jack's plans for a carefree summer are irrevocably changed. Besides being grounded, Jack finds himself working for his neighbor, Miss Volker, who called the ambulance. The sound of the shot caused her to startle and her hearing aid fell into the toilet - the town ambulance driver is also the plumber. Miss Volker ("volk" in German means "people") has to be one of my favorite old lady characters to appear in a kid's book in a long time. An founding resident of Norvelt, a planned cooperative community created in 1933 to provide subsistence homesteads for displaced industrial workers, the First Lady hired Miss Volker to be the chief nurse and medical examiner. Miss Volker takes her job so seriously that she is staying alive so that she can perform her medical examiner duties on handful of remaining original Norvelters as they die off. Miss Volker also writes the obituaries for the the Nortvelt News as well as a "This Day in History" column that features the downtrodden and oppressed, as she is quite the champion of social justice.

When Jack shows up at her house at six am in the morning on his first day of work, he is horrified to find her hands are like clubs and she seems to be gnawing at them ferociously. It turns out Miss Volker is treating her arthritis by plunging her hands into hot paraffin and the only way she can get it off when it cools is to start picking away at it with her teeth. Among other things, Jack is on hand to write up obituaries for her and run them down to the paper. But, because of her arthritis and her drive to do her job well, Jack ends up driving her around town in her car and dressing up in his Halloween costume (the Grim Reaper, most apropos) to check on elderly Norvelters who might have passed away in their homes. The two make quite a pair, and Miss Volker pays Jack for his time with weighty history tomes - so many that, at one point near the end of the summer, Jack builds an igloo in his room using the books. She even goes so far as to perform minor surgery (a truly harrowing but hilarious scene) on Jack when she learns that his mother, who believes in bartering for anything and everything, doesn't have the cash to pay the doctor to fix a chronic problem that plagues him. You'll have to read the book to find out what it is... Actually, Dead End in Norvelt is such a hard book to write a review of because there are so many crazy stories and curious people that I want to share everything. As I read/listened, I kept pulling people (mostly my kids) aside to tell them the funny bits. Which is really the whole book.

But, I will give you a bare bones plot outline here just in case I haven't already convinced you that this is a MUST READ. Besides being grounded and forced to stay in his room except for when at Miss Volker's, Jack is further punished for mowing down his mother's corn field (at the specific, sneaky instructions of his father) and does hard time turning the dirt patch into a bomb shelter-cum-landing strip to accommodate the J-3 Piper Cub airplane Mr. Gantos won in a poker game. Jack has to deal with his best friend Bunny Huffer, daughter and assistant to the town mortician, and her extreme ire with him for not being able to play on their baseball team. Then there is Mr. Spizz, another founding resident of Norvelt and town busybody who gets around on an adult-sized tricycle and fines people for the height of the weeds in their gutters. When an unnamed Hells Angel dances onto the highway near Norvelt and is flattened by a  cement truck, his remains are brought to Huffer's funeral parlor and a long, strange string of events follows. There is actually a bit of mystery that unravels in the last half of the book and is resolved by the end, to great relief.

Set a few years ahead of Gary D. Schmidt's award winning The Wednesday Wars and the semi-sequel Okay for Now, there are some similarities with Dead End in Norvelt. Yet, where Schmidt's books are poignant and bittersweet, Gantos's leans on humor to convey the import of the history he is sharing in this semi-autobiographical book. And, as much as I loved and was moved by Schmidt's books, Dead End in Norvelt is a book that I think I will read again, and maybe even again.

in which Jack and Miss Volker take a road trip...

From Norvelt to Nowhere

One more thing...

Jack GantosIn January of 2012, shortly after winning the Newbery, Jack Gantos appeared on the NPR radio programWait Wait Don't Tell Me to play Not My Job, where a famous professional is asked questions about something they know nothing about. Jack was asked three very funny questions about Harlequin Romances, but even better was the initial banter between him and host, Peter Sagal. The best bits came when Gantos talked about the events of his autobiography, Hole In My Life. In 1971, looking for money for college, Jack agrees to sail a yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City where he and his partners sold the haul until the Feds caught up with them.

Sarah Goodyear wrote this piece for The Atlantic, looking into the real town behind the book. Click through to read - Norvelt is a truly fascinating town with an interesting history.

 The Real Town Behind This Year's Newbery Medal Winning Book



Jeremy said…
Sounds excellent -- ordered!

Popular posts from this blog

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff - Projects You Can Build For (and With) Kids! by Scott Bedford

On his personal website, Scott Bedforddescribes himself as an "Award Winning Online Creative Professional" working within the advertising and design industry. What is more interesting (and applicable here) is how hisWhat I Made website came to be. While sitting in a Starbucks with his restless young sons, trying to enjoy his latte, Bedford created something out of coffee stir sticks that ended up keeping his boys entertained, finishing his coffee in peace and sparking (re-sparking, really) his creative drive and reminding him of the "enormous joy gained from making things, even simple things, and that this joy is not the complexity or quality of the finished project but in the process of making itself. On Bedford'sWhat I Made website, he even shares Six Cool Coffee Shop Crafts for Kidsthat you can try out next time you want to enjoy your coffee and your kids are making that difficult. I've shared two below - be sure to check out the website and see the rest!


How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers

How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers remains the most read post on my blog since I wrote it in 2012. Because of this, I have cleaned up this post, tightened the writing and added in any pertinent information that has come about since it originally ran. When I first started in August of 2008, I was scrambling for content, finding my purpose and my voice and not always doing my best writing. How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers was one of the first articles I wrote and, as a bookseller and a book reviewer, and now as an elementary school librarian where I have gone from working with kids reading well beyond their grade level to kids reading well below, this philosophy remains my organizing principle and central focus when reading and recommending books to parents and children. 

In the interest of my mission and the attention this article continues to receive, I have updated and expanded this article and included a guide to using …

POP-UP: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings, illustrations by Frances Castle RL: All ages

POP-UP:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book with paper engineering by Ruth Wickings and illustrations by Frances Castle is THE COOLEST BOOK EVER!!!  I know that I haven't dedicated much time to pop-up books here, but they have always held a special place in my heart, and the phrase "paper engineering" is a favorite of mine. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I did go through a paper engineering phase when I was ten or so. I would sneak off to the back of the classroom during independent work periods and go to town on the construction paper and glue and make these little free-standing dioramas. A huge fan of The Muppet Show (the original), I reconstructed the all-baby orchestra from an episode, drawing and coloring each baby and his/her instrument then gluing them onto a 3D orchestra section I had crafted out of brown construction paper.  I also made a 3D version of Snidely Whiplash throwing Nell off a cliff with Dudley Do-Right wa…