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.
One more thing...
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.