Monday, April 9, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

I didn't at all know what to expect from this one; it was on the display shelf when I visited the library and when I saw the Newbery Medal on the cover, I just snagged it. I was familiar with Jack Gantos only indirectly- his YA memoir Hole in My Life has been on the local high school's summer reading list. But I hadn't actually read anything of his (clearly a failure on my part, since this isn't the first award he's won). [edit: upon doing my homework, I realize that I have read one of his books- Rotten Ralph!]

In any case, Dead End is the fictionalized account of one summer of Gantos's childhood. However, the line between the fiction and the reality is impossible for the reader to distinguish, since so many things that come up in this book sound too insane and incredible to be true, and yet they are. Norvelt is an actual town in Pennsylvania, named for Eleanor Roosevelt (and Jack Gantos really grew up there). It was constructed during the depression to provide homes for laid off coal miners and their family, and each home had a plot of land sufficient for each family to have a garden to feed itself. A great deal of fascinating local history is given over the course of the book, most of which is probably true as well.

In the book, Jack ends up grounded for the entire Summer because he shoots off a Japanese firearm that his father had brought back from World War II and kept in the garage (to be fair, he didn't load it, nor did he expect it to be loaded), and because he plowed down his mother's cornfield (also, to be fair, at his father's bidding) to make way for a runway for his father's recently-acquired airplane. His only escape from the constant digging (both to level the field for the runway and to dig a hole for a bomb shelter that his father promised his mother, but never actually intends to build) is to assist Miss Volker. Miss Volker is a retired lady who still writes columns for the local paper (namely, the obituaries and the this-week-in-history column). However, she gets stuck on the physical writing part- arthritis has crippled her hands. She gets occasional use out of them by dipping them in hot wax, but not nearly enough to handwrite (and then type for submission) her articles. She promised Eleanor Roosevelt that she would keep tabs on the original settlers of the town for as long as they live, so she takes these obituaries very seriously.

Because there is so much actual truth and history mixed in, you're also inclined to believe the craziest things about the residents of the town (for example, Jack has a problem with his nose bleeding like a faucet at the least sign of stress, or that Mr. Spizz, a member of local town government, makes his way around town on a giant tricycle to hand out tickets for property infractions). So a book that seems like it could be about the most boring summer ever actually has quite a bit of excitement in it! I also learned some interesting trivia, such as this story.

MacMillan audio has kindly offered us the following audio clip from the beginning of the book, read by Jack Gantos. Thank you very much!

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