Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
What an entertaining mix of fact and fiction about growing up in a small town. Founded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression, by the early 1960’s, Norvelt is dying off. Literally.
Many of the men who helped settle the town have already died, years ago. Their lives were tragic–hard work in coal mines and steel mills hurried them off to meet their maker. But a number of the settling women survived. And then suddenly, in the summer of 1962, the women start dropping like flies. One of those first residents of the town–Miss Volker–is a nurse and had been charged with the duty of ‘medical examiner’ by Eleanor Roosevelt herself. When young Jack is called to her house, he is happy to go only because he needs to escape being grounded all summer. He’d fired a ‘souvenir’ Japanese rifle that his dad brought home from World War II service. he was goofing off, pointing at a drive-in movie screen when the gun discharges a bullet. A bullet that Jack swears he did not load into the gun.
And so begins the two mysteries–who put that bullet in the gun and why? And is it possible that all these old ladies are dying of natural causes within days of one another?
The reader will enjoy the bit of mystery, but mostly this little novel is full of the fun that comes with getting to know the weird, eccentric characters who live in Norvelt. Jack is so young and naive that his perception of the world leads to some very funny scenes. Very early in the novel, when Jack goes over to Miss Volker’s house and she is boiling her hands and pulling the stump of her arms out of the pot of wax, you’ll be hooked. Jack’s constant bloody noses and Miss Volker’s kitchen-table cure with what appears to Jack as a hot poker are wacky good fun.
Dead End in Norvelt helps the reader to glimpse some 20th-century history in a way that’s also entertaining–it’s incorporated into each one of the town obituaries, the writing of which is another task of Miss Volker’s–and now, of Jack’s. You’ll also get some up-close views of the undertaking business (and, thus, a number of dead bodies), a town scare from the Hell’s Angels, a search for an arsonist and more. Through it all, Jack is constantly trying to get out of his grounding punishment so that he can hang out with his friends. He tries to play his parents against one another, and often it works. He is tasked with driving although he’s eleven, and hopes to have a chance to fly the plane that his dad is secretly building.
High school housekeeping: Dead End in Norvelt is geared to a ‘tween’ audience, a bit younger than you are. But as an adult, I found it very sweetly comic and entertaining. It’s a fun, fast read. A teen can learn a lot very easily about major events in the 20th-century and even pick up some facts about ancient civilizations. There’s also good characterization that gives a sense of the difference between people whose politics lean left and right. There’s just so much packed into this book that I highly recommend it to teens. However, if you want to read something similar, but at an adult level, try the books of Fannie Flagg like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. If you want adult nonfiction with murder and quirky characters, try Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And if you just want some adult nonfiction about the undertaking business and other aspects of dealing with dead bodies, try Stiff. If you want to read adult nonfiction about another seriously crazy part of author Jack Gantos’s life (drug smuggling, addiction, prison, reform) read A Hole in My Life.