Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is the story of an incredible two months for a boy named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation adventure are suddenly ruined when he is grounded by his feuding parents for what seems like forever. But escape comes where Jack least expects it, once he begins helping an elderly neighbor with a most unusual chore—a chore involving the newly dead, molten wax, twisted promises, Girl Scout cookies, underage driving, lessons from history, obituaries, Hells Angels, and countless bloody noses. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers crack up at the most shocking things in a depiction of growing up in an off-kilter world where the characters are as unpredictable and over-the-top as they come.
I have such mixed feelings about this book. Parts of it actually caused me to laugh out loud. Gantos the author actually seems to be Jack the kid (which should go without saying, I guess, except when I read his biography I realize that it and this story don't exactly line up). He captures the thoughts and feelings and pure, unsuspecting innocence of a kid in a way that is both entertaining and refreshing. My favorite scene in the whole book is when Jack goes to Ms. Volkert's house (the "elderly neighbor," who happens to be the town coroner and obituary writer) to find her "cooking" her hands in a pot on the stove. Seeing the scene, which turns out to be the innocent home-remedy of an arthritic old woman, from Jack's perspective is hilarious. The villain in the story, an elderly man who attempts to woo Ms. Volkert at every turn, is creepy in an almost-funny sort of way--he rides his gigantic tricycle all over Norvelt and behaves reprehensibly to Jack, all the while trying to (apparently) win Ms. Volkert's heart. There are countless other episodes throughout the novel (many involving Jack's perpetually-bleeding nose) that are just so perfectly the picture of a bookish and eager adolescent boy.
The story also reminds a bit of some of those 1990s television shows like The Wonder Years that were set in the 1960s. Although Dead End in Norvelt is not retrospective, it feels that way: Jack's dad constantly talks about the Commies and sets Jack to building a bomb shelter in the back yard. His mother is sort of hippy-ish in that she's mostly concerned with caring for her elderly neighbors and wants to barter for whatever they need because the family is broke. (This is actually a nod to Norvelt's beginnings, which you can read about in here on this bastion of reliable information, Wikipedia.) The story is sort of complicated and very clever, with Ms. Volkert writing original and entertaining (and pointed) obituaries for the original inhabitant of Norvelt who are dropping like flies. Ms. Volkert's obituaries are often as much social commentary as they are condolence. There's also a mystery in this already heavily-laden story, but the mystery sort of sneaks up on the reader. I didn't realize there actually is much of a mystery until the climax of it, actually. Dead End in Norvelt is a bunch of things: coming-of-age story, mystery, social commentary, historical fiction. It's an entertaining read.
Still, though, the thing that finally killed the book for me is the ending. I usually don't react that strongly to what I read, especially children's literature. This time, though, I was enjoying this story right along, thinking it was quirky but extremely well written, when bam! Out of the blue the story ends with a scene that moved his father from being a somewhat caustic personality to someone I genuinely don't like. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into any more details, but it really just don't like the place the ending leaves Jack. Maybe it's more like real life than any other imagined ending, but I still don't like it.
Bottom line? I like the book but hate the ending.
Is this one Newbery material? Yeah, I think so. It's not what I think of when I think of Newberys, for sure. (Well, okay, maybe a little like When You Reach Me in tone and subject matter, but not what I'd really consider classic material.) No doubt about it, though--Jack Gantos is a talented writer.
This is the second of the children's ALA picks I've read so far. While my vote would've gone to Inside Out and Back Again for the gold, I think they are both outstanding stories. This one is more outstanding for its sheer artistic weirdness, but it's still outstanding. Now I need to get my hands on the third of this year's Newbery designees, Breaking Stalin's Nose, and my mission will be complete.
This review was also posted on my blog, Hope Is the Word.