Author: Jack Gantos
Publication Date: 9/13/11
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
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Blurb (GR): Dead End in Norvelt is the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year's best contribution to children's literature and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction!
Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a fiesty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launced on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.
Jack Gantos is the perfect narrator for his own work. This book is partly autobiographical, partly fiction, and totally wacky. We received a review copy of the audiobook from Macmillan Audio and from the onset, I knew only that it was a Newbery Award winner and that Norvelt was the name of the town in which the main character lived, so basically nothing. (It also won the Scott O'Dell Award For Historical Fiction) I enjoyed Gantos' voice acting but I couldn't put my finger on what it was about his voice that kept making me say to myself, "I've never heard anyone with a voice like his read an audiobook. What is it about his voice?" And then it came to me like a brick to my head--my extremely embarrassed head, that is. He's from western Pennsylvania! He totally sounds like my childhood and relatives. I am seriously so embarrassed about my lack of pickup on this one. I sauntered up to my parents and said, "So, have you two ever heard of Norvelt?" and they both were like, "Of course! That's right near Mt. Pleasant!" *facepalm* Long story only semi-shortened, my father grew up at the same time as Jack Gantos in a town twenty minutes north of Norvelt. (Greensburg) My mother, same deal but half an hour northwest. (Irwin) Even if the historical facts in this book are only partially true, I still wish I knew about the history of Norvelt when I lived in Pittsburgh so I could go check it out. As it is, I'll do that next time I'm in PA. After I figured out why I was enjoying Gantos' narration so much, I became even more attached to the story because I imagined the streets near my grandparents' house, the geographic area, the coal miner historical feeling in western Pennsylvania, and what it might've been like for my dad growing up around the same time. (Let's hear it for the western PA tradition of getting the first day of hunting season off of school!)
The story of Dead End in Norvelt is one we've heard before, but with a few twists. Eleven or twelve-year old Jack ends up grounded for the entire summer because he disobeys his mother by listening to his father. (I felt awful that he was grounded for the whole summer because of his parents' disagreement!) The only place Jack is allowed to go is his elderly neighbor's house to help her write obituaries for the town newspaper because her arthritic hands don't allow her to have a lot of mobility. Mrs. Volker, the old woman, is one crazy character in a cast so quirky that they must be based loosely on people Mr. Gantos has known throughout his life. There is an old man who rides a huge adult tricycle around town, an ex-postmistress who plasters her walls with undeliverable mail, and even Jack himself, who gets a nosebleed every time he gets excited, scared, surprised, or, well, anything at all. (I read that the nosebleeds were a fact of young Gantos' life) While most of the story reads like an enjoyable middle-grade memoir, there is a potential murder mystery integrated into the book, as well as Hells Angels wreaking havoc at a few points, and some plot points about Girl Scouts. (I'm glad I had some Tagalongs to munch on during the week or so I listened to this book. All it takes is one mention of Girl Scout cookies and I get a craving. Side note: does anyone else wonder if the secret ingredient is cocaine? Juuuust kidding.)
I think I just love middle grade tales of everyday life. Movies like The Sandlot and My Girl, as well as books like When You Reach Me and The Wednesday Wars. Sure, there are other events occurring in the plots of those books and movies but they are basically just about what's going on in the life of one young person, or a group of young people. The slight difference in Dead End in Norvelt, and it is one I really enjoyed, was the injection of more history. Norvelt was its own character and it was so interesting to hear different characters weighing in on their feelings about the town fading away, people moving away or dying, and whether or not they should fight to continue the values on which the town was based. For those who never plan to read this book (or listen to it, which I recommend), Norvelt was built up by the federal government after the Depression to house out-of-work coal miners and their families. The town was/is named for EleaNOR RooseVELT and after listening to small tidbits peppered throughout the book, I went to read up more on the history of the town. As someone whose favorite time period in American history to learn about is the New Deal era, this book and the subsequent Wikipedia articles it inspired me to go and read were like a pleasant treat.
This book isn't for everyone and I can understand why the ratings and reviews are all over the place. This is a book about a young boy--there is a gratuitously long section about farting while hunting. Necessary? Heck no, but definitely realistic for boys that age to be talking/thinking about. Sensational at parts? Again, yes, but that's part of the overall feeling of the novel. If even half of the events happened and even a quarter of those people existed, Jack Gantos had a hugely eventful childhood. Or at least one hilarious and memorable summer.
Thanks to Macmillan Audio for providing us with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.