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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