Well, it looks like it’s time for a book review and this one is a about a good one. As a part of the 2012 YA Audiobook Challenge, I recently finished Dead End in Norvelt, a middle grades novel by Jack Gantos which is the 2012 winner of the Newberry Medal for the best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Congrats Mr. Gantos!!
Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about 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, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack’s way once his mom loans him out to help a feisty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launched on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.
This is my first time reading anything by Jack Gantos, although he has written tons of other things that I was unaware were his books; like the Joey Pigza series. I received this audiobook from MacMillan Audio (Thank You!!) and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to author Jack Gantos narrate his fictionalized memoirs.
The picture Gantos paints of Norvelt , a small farming town established by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s, is fabulously sketched. It seems that small towns always have their fair share of quirky town “characters”, but sometimes the characters’ quirkiness doesn’t always come across the right way. Well, Gantos doesn’t fail to flesh-out these characters in a way that makes the reader believe that they’re real people. Real people who you know and love by the end of the story. My favorite character is the charmingly stubborn and bossy Miss Volker, who hires Jack to help her write obituaries for the local newspaper when her arthritis is too bad. Miss Volker is charming and crazy and the warm wax scene where we meet her is absolutely hilarious and I was cracking up in my car while driving home from work. I love how just as Miss Volker needs Jack to help her with daily tasks, Jack needs her to help him grow up and blossom a bit.
Also, I love the young boy, Jack. He is your average twelve-year-old boy, wanting to be seen as grown up but still making irresponsible choices and just being a kid. Jack’s character actually reminds me a lot of Ralphie from the film, A Christmas Story (you know the one with the leg lamp!). In A Christmas Story Ralphie is pretty much the king of daydreaming - it’s very similar to the bookish Jack who has both a lot of smarts and a wildly overactive imagination.
All of the supporting characters are so interesting, humorous and well written. I feel like I grew up in Norvelt right along the young Jack Gantos and his friends. The tomboyish Bunny, Jack’s friend and daughter of a funeral home director, is such a good complement to Jack’s more hesitant ways. And the way in which Jack is often caught between his mother, a life time Norvelter, and father, World War II vet, (and their very different philosophies on life) is both sad and sweet at the same time.
Gantos also weaves small snippets of history through Jack’s reading and love of all things historical or Ms. Volker’s obituaries. He uses these snippets to help young Jack realize the importance of history. How it’s not just to read it and know it but to use one’s knowledge of the past to prevent one from making the same mistakes again. This history provides and important backdrop to Jack’s journey of maturity.
Once you read Dead End in Norvelt you understand why it is an award winner. Gantos is clearly an incredibly talent writer specializing in melding the odd with the humorous with regular daily life. I recommend Dead End in Norvelt to all readers middle grades and up. Be prepared to laugh!