Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt

Jack Gantos
For ages 10 and up
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2011   ISBN: 978-0374379933

Jack Gantos is all ready to have “a great summer vacation,” when two things happen that bring his plans to an abrupt end. Jack takes the Japanese rifle that his father brought back from the war and he pretends to shoot at the screen of the local drive-in movie theatre. When he pulls the trigger, the most extraordinary thing happens. The gun fires. It was not supposed to be loaded, and Jack cannot explain how it came to be loaded. Not surprisingly, his mother is not at all happy about what happened, and she grounds Jack until her husband comes home from working on a construction job.

The second thing to happen isn’t really Jack’s fault, but he is the one who ends up getting punished. His father comes home from his construction job and he brings an army surplus plane with him. He tells Jack to cut down all the corn that his wife planted so that he can turn the field into a landing strip for the plane. Jack has to do what his father tells him to do, and as a result he ends up making his mother furious. She grounds him for the rest of the summer.

The only thing Jack is allowed to do outside of the house is to help Mrs. Volker. She has crippling arthritis and she needs Jack to help her out. Mrs. Volker is one of the original residents of the Norvelt, and she has taken on the job of writing the obituaries for the local paper. During the Great Depression, the town came into being because Mrs. Roosevelt wanted to build a community where poor people could have decent homes to live in. Writing the obituaries is Mrs. Volker’s way of “doing my duty for Mrs. Roosevelt,” and she also uses the obits as a means to write about important events from history.

As the summer unfolds, small events take place that keep Jack from dying of boredom. A Hells Angel biker gets killed when he dances into a street, and then his buddies come to Norvelt and set fire to some of the empty houses in town. Jack discovers that the empty houses are being sold and taken to West Virginia.

One by one the old ladies in Norvelt, the last original residents, start to die. In fact they are dying at a rather surprising rate. Jack helps Mrs. Volker write the obits, and in so doing he starts to understand why she is doing what she is doing. In her own way Mrs. Volker is trying to show the newspaper readers that Norvelt is a great place, even if it is dying.

In this award-winning book, Jack Gantos combines fact and fiction with delicious touches of humor and a wonderfully quirky story to give readers an entertaining, enlightening, and memorable reading experience. With sometimes dark humor, Jack Gantos takes us to a time and place that is strangely fascinating and compelling.