Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

And here’s this year’s Newbery winner!  Although I hadn’t read it when it was announced, I was thrilled to see the author was Jack Gantos.  I really liked his YA memoir, Hole in my Life, which is a great story about a young kid messing up his life and fixing it.  And when his name was announced all I could think was “holy cow, I’ll say he fixed it.”

Since the main character’s name is Jack Gantos, I assume that this is a fictionalized version of his childhood summer of 1962.  There are great historical details about Commies and bomb shelters, and most of all the town that Jack lives in, Norvelt.  Apparently it was created by Eleanor Roosevelt designed to a community where people help each other (I’m a librarian-you’d think I would research this fascinating detail, but I’ll just assume it’s all true. Why would he make that up? It’s very interesting.)  Jack’s mother firmly believes in this and is always cooking for the elderly of the town.  Jack’s father think’s it’s a load of Commie crap and is eager to get out of the town and doesn’t care that it’s kind of dying out.  Speaking of dying…the plot device is that Jack is grounded for the whole summer.  The only thing he is permitted to do is go help Mrs. (gosh what’s her name??), who is one of the original members of the town, and happens to be the medical examiner and obituary writer.  Trouble is her arthritis has given her fairly useless claws so she needs Jack to do her writing for her.  Every time an elderly original resident dies Jack and Mrs. rush over to see the body and then Mrs. dictates wonderful obituaries to Jack.  The obits are a great device for putting in quirky stories, as well as history.  This summer there are an awful lot of obituaries-seems like people are dying every other day, which is a bit suspicious and becomes a mystery.  Along with some menacing Hells Angels that makes some pretty serious stuff going on to offset the tons of humor that Gantos has written in to the story.

My only quibble-he was being punished all summer for obeying his father and that seemed so unfair and bizarre to me-like the problem is really with his parents, and maybe it happened this way because it’s based on his life, but that seemed so weird to me. Like, if I was the kid I’d be thinking “don’t put me in the middle of your bad marriage.” And it was strange that that fundamental thing wasn’t really addressed.

But overall, this is a wonderful read, well written, funny, and totally engaging.


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