Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. 2011.

In this wacky mix of memoir and fiction, Jack Gantos—who is both the author and the protagonist—starts out by saying, “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.”  And of course, what could ruin a summer more than having to get up early and going to work.

Jack’s elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, writes the obituaries for all of the original founders of Norvelt, a cooperative community established during the Great Depression and praised by Eleanor Roosevelt.  However, Miss Volker’s arthritis has become so bad that she cannot write any more—in fact, she can’t do many things unless she first soaks her hands in melted wax to loosen them up and ease the pain.  So Jack’s job is to take notes and then type up the obituary and get it to the newspaper office in time for printing.   Miss Volker’s obituaries are great—quirky facts about the deceased combined with somewhat pertinent town history and world events.

But now, in 1962, there aren’t many original Norvelt residents left, just a few old ladies, and after they are gone, Miss Volker plans to move to Florida to live with her sister.  But when they start dying off rather quickly, some people start to wonder if Miss Volker might just be a little too anxious to get out of Norvelt.

But Jack believes that Miss Volker is guilt-free.  After all, she helped fix his nose—which always tends to spew blood whenever he is surprised, nervous, or scared.  So, despite his being “grounded for life,” he sets out to prove her innocence—and ends up trying to figure out if Girl Scout cookies, a homemade airplane, a man who rides a tricycle, a funeral home, Hell’s Angels, and rat poison have anything to do with the deaths.

One of the best things about Dead End in Norvelt is the book’s language, which is full of humor and satire.  Both the character Jack and Miss Volker reflect on everything from gossip to Inca gold to the place of history in the present, and their musings are often hilarious (“His idea of a revolution is coloring outside the lines.”)

The characters in the book were well-described and, as in real life, are quirky and unpredictable.  And Jack’s character grows significantly throughout the book. Though he is easily frightened and hesitant about seeing or doing anything remotely dangerous, he finds the courage to do what he is afraid of…even while his nose bleeds and though he might faint afterwards.  I personally felt very drawn to Jack and his “nose problem”—especially since I had the same issue with my nose when I was growing up.

In an interview at the end of the audiobook edition, Jack Gantos (the author) talks about what is real and what is fiction in the book.  The town of Norvelt and its history are real as described in the book, and Miss Volker was a real character, though Gantos changed her name.  His descriptions of Jack’s parents were spot-on, and as a youngster, Gantos really did have horrible nosebleeds, “vicious splashy nosebleeds which I was kind of famous for with big wads of paper sticking out of my nose.”

Give this book to kids who like history or mystery, especially those who enjoy getting grossed out with descriptions of copious amounts of blood.

Blogger:  Tracey L.