Monday, December 12, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt - a review

Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Macmillan.

I don't know how much of Dead End in Norvelt, featuring the fictionalized Jack Gantos, is true and how much is not, but I'll venture that the author Jack Gantos had a secure (albeit austere) childhood with two well-meaning, working-class parents, a tendency for nosebleeds, and a few very quirky neighbors. 

Bomb shelters, WWII surplus equipment, a dying town, the Hell's Angels, a local newspaper, the sharp-tongued elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, and of course, Jack Gantos and his family are the foils for a very funny, yet affecting book of life in rural, post-war America.

The story begins as young Jack is grounded for the summer due to an unfortunate incident involving a loaded firearm and the drive-in theater. Things get progressively worse as Jack, following his father's orders, mows down the cornfield to make room for a bomb-shelter, which in actuality is merely cover for a private airstrip. The usually kindly and practical Mrs. Gantos quickly takes charge of her two wayward men,

"Well, mister," she informed me with no trace of sympathy in her voice, "I'm going to march your father into this room and make him cut you down to size. And when he finishes with you I'll make him wish he had already built that bomb shelter because he might be living in it."   ...  It took two days for Dad to march into my room and cut me down to size.  He knew he had gotten me in trouble with Mom and so he quickly wrangled a construction job in West Virginia for a couple days of paid work.  He thought Mom might cool down, but he could have been away for two years and she would still have been just as angry.  It was as if she could preserve her anger and store it in a glass jar next to the hot horseradish and yellow beans and corn chowchow she kept in the dank basement pantry.  And when she needed some anger she could just go into the basement and open a jar and get worked up all over again.
 Throughout the long, hot summer, Jack's only respite from digging the bomb shelter and reading in his room are the frequent calls from the elderly Miss Volker, the town medical examiner and writer of obituaries for the local paper.  Her arthritic hands prevent her from typing and Mrs. Gantos, ever solicitous of neighbor's needs, sends Jack to help. In doing so, Jack learns much more than the history of his town, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Realistic fiction with a humorous and historical twist, Dead End in Norvelt is one of the year's best novels. 

Best for grades 6 and up.

It's interesting that many of the best books in recent memory, including Dead End in Norvelt, prominently feature a wise, older or elderly non-relatives (Moon Over ManifestOkay for Now, Wendy Mass' Birthday series, I'm sure there are more).  Unfortunately, although these books are realistic fiction, there are far too few of these older, helpful, non-relatives in reality.  If you are in a position to be one, please do!

There is an abundance of resources available for Dead End in Norvelt.  Enjoy!
  • An audio excerpt is available here.
  • Read an excerpt here.
  • Teacher's Guide here.

Other reviews @

1 comment:

  1. I was brought to tears laughing so hard twice while reading this book. Definitely one of the best of 2011!


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