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Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

341 pages

I have a thing for dark humor. I’m also a fan of period fiction (sometimes truly historical, sometimes not) and stories with a strong regional flavor. Give me a book, TV show, or movie that combines the two, and I’m in heaven.

So I’ve been itching to read Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt ever since I read the ALA Newbery committee’s description of the book. I finally got my hands on a copy, and it did not disappoint. Even better, I discovered that (although the main character is male), the book has a handful of terrific female characters that make this story a perfect fit for my Super Secondaries series.

Here’s the story: young Norvelt, PA, resident Jack Gantos is in deep trouble. He got caught playing with his father’s WWII souvenirs, and he cut down his mother’s prized corn. So instead of spending his summer playing baseball, watching movies at the drive-in, and hanging out with his friends, he’s grounded until further notice.

His only escape is Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor who does double duty as the town nurse and obituary writer. Jack’s mother has loaned him out to the old lady, whose severe arthritis is getting in the way of her work.

As Jack works for Miss Volker, he learns something about the fascinating history of his hometown and its residents, how grown-ups cope with harsh economic realities, and what it means to live – and die – well. As more and more of the town’s elderly residents do the latter, he also begins to ask some questions. Is Norvelt’s soaring death rate just a coincidence, or is someone bumping off the old ladies a bit before their time?

As you’ve probably guessed from the main character’s name, Dead End in Norvelt is semi-autobiographical. Norvelt, PA, is the author’s true hometown, one of dozens of New Deal settlements founded during the Depression for the relief of unemployed coal miners and their families. Most of the town history related in the book is real, and Gantos communicates it in an entertaining way.

But it’s not just the history that makes this story a winner (though it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the Newbery). Gantos’ wry style and strong voice are deeply engaging, and the macabre humor is side-splitting. And then, of course, there are the ladies: Dead End in Norvelt has three strong female characters to inspire girl readers.

First there’s Jack’s best friend Bunny, who is very small of stature but huge of personality. Her father is the town undertaker, and exposure to his profession has made Bunny the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. While Jack swoons in the autopsy room, Bunny goes in for a closer look. When arsonists plague Norvelt, she organizes a nighttime fire patrol. In short, she is one of the spunkiest, sassiest girls I’ve ever encountered in fiction. For girls who are athletic, fascinated by the weird side of life, dealing with physical limitations, or just loud and proud, she’s an excellent point of contact with the story.

Next there’s Jack’s mom, a big-hearted and capable woman. With Jack’s father frequently out of town on construction jobs, she often holds down the fort alone. And when insufficient income and other setbacks arise, her resourcefulness keeps the family afloat and provides for Norvelt’s elderly residents. She’s not perfect: her desire to protect Jack can make her fearful, but she always summons courage when it’s needed, as when she faces down an armed stranger in the family’s backyard. In a time when girls are still bombarded with messages to fit a mold for the sake of winning love and approval, she shows how to operate as part of a loving family and caring community without sacrificing identity or principles.

And finally there’s Miss Volker, a fiery, sharp-witted old lady who teaches Jack to think both for and outside himself. She is one of Norvelt’s original residents, a deep admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom the town is named), and dedicated to educating and caring for Norvelt’s citizens. In addition to the town obituaries, which she pens as wider historical lessons, she writes a “This Day in History” column where she encourages readers to question and look beyond the victors’ narratives that make up most textbook versions of history. Politically progressive, outspoken, and tenacious, she teaches Jack and readers that women’s voices are an essential part of the social conversation. She is also a healthy model of single womanhood – encouragement that women needn’t marry or have children to find fulfillment in life, career, and relationships.

Dead End in Norvelt is an excellent read any way you slice it, a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story with plenty to engage both boys and girls. But with these three ladies as part of the story, it becomes inspirational as well.

Read about the further adventures of Jack and Miss Volker in From Norvelt to Nowhere, published in 2013.

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200px-Up_a_Road_Slowly_coverUp a Road Slowly

by Irene Hunt

Follett, 1966

192 pages

Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly is a problem book.

I can’t remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember being told that it’s a great book for girls. By the time I finished reading it, however, I wasn’t sure – and even as I write, I’m feeling the tug of indecision.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the book. I read it in long sittings, reluctant to put it down. And when my daughter is a bit older, I’ll recommend it to her. So why the uncertainty? Well, keep reading, and we’ll explore it together.

Up a Road Slowly follows Julie Trelling from age seven, when her mother dies and she is sent to live with her Aunt Cordelia, to age 17, when she graduates as valedictorian of her high school class. There’s not much plot, to be honest. The book is more about people: Julie, the folks she loves, and how her relationships with them influence her growth.

My favorite thing about the story is the sheer variety of female characters. They are traditional and unconventional, smart and brainless, cool-headed and mentally unstable. Moreover, the central female characters – Aunt Cordelia, Julie, her sister Laura, and her stepmother Alicia – all find fulfillment because each deliberately chooses the path that is right for her. In other words, Hunt doesn’t try to fit every girl into the same box. Her book is a healthy reminder that there are many valid roles for a woman to fill: scholar (Alicia and Julie), professional (Cordelia), homemaker (Laura), and more. The point is not to value one role above the others but to choose, to make sure that you are filling your role intentionally and because it is the right one for you.

I also love Hunt’s realism. For a classic, the book offers nuanced and fairly progressive treatments of sticky issues such as alcoholism, mental illness, and sexuality. Julie’s alcoholic Uncle Haskell, for instance, is a layered character whose behavior has complex origins – he’s not just a morally bankrupt drunk. And her schoolmate Carlotta, who becomes pregnant by the manipulative Brett Kingsman, is not just a tainted slut – she’s an impressionable girl who is unfairly used and discarded, and Julie both recognizes the injustice of her fate and the importance of maintaining an open heart toward her old friend.

So what’s the problem? There are a couple, actually. First, the book’s attitude toward romantic love bothers me. There are steady messages that strong, successful women will not find fulfillment unless they fall in love and/or marry. Alicia, despite having an established career as a respected teacher, equates being uncoupled with “insecurity” and calls it “frightening”; Cordelia says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.” Worse, Julie adopts this philosophy wholeheartedly: once she reaches adolescence, she is fundamentally unhappy and ill-at-ease until paired off with a boy.

Second, I’m not entirely keen on Danny Trevort, Julie’s longtime friend and eventual lover. He’s obviously supposed to be Julie’s ideal match, a boy who deserves her because he is kind and good and appreciative of her talents. But he has a very proprietary and, at times, condescending attitude toward her. When she’s drifting in the wrong direction, he tends to try and bully her back onto the right track (there’s one unsettling instance where she resists this behavior, and he tells her baldly to “Shut up”).

The issue of romantic love in general, and Julie’s relationship with Danny in particular, are central to the book, so these problematic elements form a strong counterweight to the empowering messages found elsewhere in the story. Hence my hesitation. As I was mulling things over, however, I realized that Up a Road Slowly would be worth a review because it makes an excellent case study.

After all, it’s good to have a plan for dealing with books like this: beautifully written, potentially inspiring stories that nevertheless carry some problematic baggage. Many classics, particularly those written pre-1900, fall into this category. Crack one open, and you’re likely to find inspiration right along side paternalism, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, or worse.

My suggestion? First, match the book to the girl. The younger or less mature the girl, the less problematic content the book should have. Then be ready to talk. As she reads, or after she’s finished the book, ask her what she thinks of it. Ask specific but open-ended questions about problematic passages: “What do you think of the way Danny talks to Julie when he’s angry? What makes you a ‘complete’ person?”

It’s not a question of whether a girl will encounter oppressive messages in life – it’s a question of when. Train her to recognize those messages for what they are, and to question them, and you train her for empowerment. Books like Up a Road Slowly can be a part of that process. Because, ultimately, a thinking girl is an inspired one.

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Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell

Candlewick Press, 2013

233 pages

Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.

The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.

Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.

Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.

Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.

Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).

Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.

If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.

Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.

Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.

This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.

Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.

 

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