Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Ages 10 and up (from the publisher)
Another Maine Student Book Award Book
Dead End in Norvelt is a wonderful blend of fiction and non-fiction. The story is set in the early 1960's in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. The town was established in the early 30's and was a subsistence-homestead community established during The Great Depression. Originally called Westmoreland Homestead, it was renamed after Eleanor Roosevelt following her visit in 1937.
The main character, Jack Gantos (although the story is only slightly autobiographical) was looking forward to an adventure-filled summer vacation. His plans were drastically changed after he accidentally shoots a hole in a drive-in movie theater screen with his Dad's Japanese rifle (which was not supposed to be loaded) and intentionally mows down his mother's rows of corn. His father ordered him to mow the corn in order to make room for the new bomb shelter and airplane runway for the two-seater he wants to restore. Since his mother usually sells the corn to raise money to fund meals for the elderly, she is bent on making Jack pay for his decision.
As a punishment, along with reminding him of what he did every chance she can get, his mother loans him out to their elderly neighbor, Miss Volker for a very unusual chore. Miss Volker is an original resident of Norvelt. She is the town's medical examiner and also writes the obituaries of other original Norvelters when they die. Although she is feisty and sharp, crippling arthritis has taken Miss Volker's ability to write or type so Jack must write for her. They have several hilarious scenes together. In their first scene together Jack describes, in horrific detail, what he believes is Miss Volker intentionally melting the skin off her hands in a pot on the stove. It turns out that she needs to soak her twisted hands in parafin wax in order to get them to work properly even for just a few minutes.
Jack has an unfortunate condition where his nose bleeds profusely whenever he feels any stress, which is often. In another scene, Miss Volker, after "cooking" her hands, cauterizes the inside of his nose in disgusting detail which many young readers will love. The close relationship Jack and Miss Volker develop throughout the book is unexpected and heartwarming. He even starts lying to his parents in order to go on more "adventures" with Miss Volker where he is often allowed to drive her car.
Throughout the course of the book there are several other story lines. As I mentioned, Miss Volker is charged with writing the obituaries of the elderly original Norvelt residents. She made a promise to Eleaner Roosevelt herself to finish this task. Another original Norvelter is Mr. Spizz. Mr. Spizz has been sweet on Miss Volker since they were young. However, she did not return his affection and agreed to marry him only after all the other original resistents have passed on.
Jack also has another friend in the book, the funeral director's daughter, Bunny. However this friendship is never fully explored or developed.
Near the end of the book, there is a lot happening including the suspicious deaths of many elderly residents, "Hell's Angel's" attempting to burn down houses in Norvelt and the identity of who loaded the Japanese rifle (unfortunately referred to as a "Jap" rifle by Jack's father) is revealed.
Jack Gantos does not disappoint. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for 5th grade and up.
What I am Reading Now...
Nerd Camp is another pick from The Maine Student Book Award List. I am only a couple of chapters in, but it promises to be a great read. More to come!