Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Cindy: When you read as many books as we do, strange moments of serendipity are bound to arise, but they still often surprise–like reading two books back to back in which an undertaker’s process of sewing shut the jaw of a corpse is described in great detail! The Titanic’s undertaker did so in The Watch That Ends the Night and now in Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar 2011) young Jackie Gantos is friends with a girl whose father owns the town’s funeral home and Jack gets to watch some of the work. There’s more to this novel than mortuary details, but much of it is just as unsettling.  Jack is 12, it’s 1962, and he’s grounded for the summer (or the rest of his life), whichever comes first. His infraction? Mowing down his mother’s cornfield at the request of his father who is planning a landing strip for the piper he won in a card game, or firing off his father’s souvenir Japanese WWII rifle that he didn’t know was loaded. Take your pick. The gothic comedy elicits “ew’s” and tear-inducing laughter throughout the pages starting with Jack’s battles with frequent horrific bloody noses and the home-cauterization of his nose by an arthritic neighbor who uses old veterinary equipment for the job. He also is volunteered by his mother to assist said neighbor, Mrs. Volker, in taking dictation for her newspaper obituaries that include as much town history as personal tribute. Young readers who like the humor and history of Richard Peck’s Grandma Dowdel stories are the best audience for this odd story but the jury is still out for me on whether it is the kids or their parents who will take to this book more. One thing Ganto does extremely well (and there are many) is to flesh out eccentric adult characters and make them integral to a story for children.  I listened to this on audio (Macmillan Audio), which Gantos read himself, and enjoyed every minute…the subplots with the Hell’s Angels, the dead end courtship of Mrs. Volker by Mr. Spizz, his mother’s attempts at bartering, the town history with Eleanor Roosevelt’s involvement, Jack’s reading of the Landmark biography series, the importance of learning from our history, and the flaky mystery of the sudden frequent demise of the elderly women of Norvelt.

Jack Gantos is a consummate storyteller and he ties all the loose ends together and entertains along the way and still leaves the reader with some things to think about after the last page is turned. I hope this book isn’t a complete dead end…I’d like to hear more from the young Jack Gantos. The publisher’s website includes a teacher’s guide, an interview with Gantos about what is fiction and what is real in this book, a book trailer and other supplementary material.

Lynn: There are some books that I find impossible to adequately describe and this is one of them.  This book  cracks me up and I smile just thinking about it despite having read it months ago.  I love Gantos’ vivid but eccentric phrases and descriptions.  Here is an example:

He looked like a human corn grub with crusty wire-rimmed glasses over his bugged out snow-globe eyes.  On his shoulders he had wispy blond hairs that flowed in the wind like corn silk.  He reeked of gasoline and although he was pretty weird, he wasn’t dangerous.  As Mom said, “He just doesn’t know any better.  He’s never lived with a woman so he’s like a dog that has gone feral and returned to its wild state.”

I love the insanely impulsive schemes Jack concocts and the inevitable disasters that result.  Jack is a character I connected with and I think we all do.  He is the boy who does all those things I secretly wanted to do but never did because I knew they would lead to disaster.  So all the while I’m simultaneously thinking, “Don’t DO it,” I’m loving him for charging ahead straight over the cliff.  Jack gives us a gift of this town and its wacky inhabitants that just seethe with life.  I don’t have to be told that there is a kernel of truth in each soul and scene depicted – I know it with my heart and I also know that there but for fate’s eccentric hand go I.  Gantos shows us the secret lunatic who lurks in all of us and he does it with a warm-hearted acceptance that makes us laugh helplessly and shake our heads.

Audience?  I think it is universal.  I’m working with three Mock Newbery groups and at a meeting of our 5th grade group right before the holiday break, one of the boys reporting on this book, laughed so hard he couldn’t get the words out.  Several kids took the book to read over the break so stay tuned.




About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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