Monday, December 2, 2013

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos has been one of my favorite authors, and I have been reading his books fairly consistently since elementary school. Joey Pigza Swallows the Key was a read-aloud book in my elementary or middle school Language Arts class, which led me to reading the rest of the series. I read Hole in My Life and The LoveCurse of the Rumbaughs around the same time, two incredibly different novels both in terms of style and content. However, I completely missed the Norvelt books (even though I looked at them in Chapters all the time, but didn’t actually get around to buying them), the first of which was published in 2011 and won the Newberry Medal in 2012.

Dead End in Norvelt mixes the autobiographical with the fictional, as main character Jack Gantos starts off the summer on the wrong foot. He says, “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.” Jack accidentally fires his father’s Japanese WWII rifle, mows down his mom’s recently planted rows of corn, and is grounded for the summer. The only reprieve he’s given is to go over to his neighbor Miss Volker’s house to help her write up obituaries for the town of Norvelt’s original residents who are now in their late seventies and eighties. Miss Volker’s arthritis prevents her from transcribing and then typing up the obituaries on her ancient typewriter, and she has to routinely warm up her hands in hot wax to get them working for about fifteen minutes at a time.

Jack becomes a staple at her house, as the original Norvelt residents begin passing away at a record rate. He learns how to drive her car to visit the houses of the dead (so Miss Volker can get there before the funeral director), even though he doesn’t really know how:

“I’ve only driven a tractor,” I said nervously. “I don’t know if I can really drive a car.”
“It’s the same,” she said. “Just go slow and it won’t matter if you hit anything.”
“But what if I slowly drive off a cliff?” I asked.
“You’ll have more time to pray before you hit the bottom,” she said impatiently. “Now try to be a man and let’s get going.”

Set in 1962, Gantos’s book is a work of historical fiction, but the voice always feels contemporary and relatable. The town of Norvelt where Jack grows up was a New Deal town created by Eleanor Roosevelt (the town is named by combining parts of her first and last name) in order to help poor and impoverished Americans create a self-sustaining community. This, and other parcels of American history, are constantly inserted into the story. Miss Volker peppers her obituaries with narratives of American History that have been misrepresented or forgotten, and Jack reads the Landmark History series throughout the summer.

I have a copy of From Norvelt to Nowhere to read next for the continuation of Jack’s story, an excellent combination of history, mystery, autobiography, and fiction.

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