Dead End in Norvelt



Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Ages: 10 +

Interests: small town life, mystery, writing, history, American history, social justice, politics, crime, violence

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York: 2011

341 pages

Also by this author: From Norvelt to Nowhere (sequel to this book), Joey Pigza series, Rotten Ralph picture book series

The protagonist of this tale has the same name as the author, who did live in Norvelt, but this novel seems to be not overly autobiographical. The year is 1962 and fictional Jack Gantos is twelve and suffers from constant nosebleeds. Near the beginning of the book he is grounded for the whole summer for mowing down his mother’s corn patch. The only time he is allowed to leave the house is to help an elderly neighbour with her work writing obituaries for the recently deceased oldtimers of Norvelt. Miss Volker is a source of endless historical knowledge and an ardent admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, who founded the town. Jack learns a lot from her about history and writing, and genuinely enjoys their time together. After a few deaths however, suspicion starts to grow that someone is bumping off the little old ladies of Norvelt, and to Jack’s great surprise and shock, Miss Volker herself is the main suspect.

It’s hard to condense this novel into a few paragraphs, as it is simply packed with eccentric characters and crazy events. And while I quite enjoyed the historical tangents that Miss Volker throws into every obituary, in general this book was just too uneven and disorganized for me. The trouble begins with the central event that gets Jack grounded. His dad tells him to mow down the corn, his mom tells him not to, his dad repeats his order, Jack mows down the corn, and his mom grounds him, even though she knows he was just following orders. Both his parents come out as pretty unlikable, and the story meanders along in this way, under the weight of calculated oddness, for most of the book. It feels anecdotal, even episodic, and the various elements are not tied together all that well. I found it a bit of a slog to keep reading, and by the mid-point I really did not care what was going to happen next.

The main storyline, if there is one, would probably be the murder mystery, though that doesn’t even appear until very near the end of the book. The characters are a jumble of stereotypes and weird tics; very few of them ring true in any way, and the book is marred by awkward dialogue and stilted conversations. The characters are said to care for each other, sometimes, but there’s no real, believable evidence of this.

This novel may succeed for some on the level of general weirdness, but the disparate threads were not woven together into a satisfying whole. The fact that a number of old ladies have been murdered is treated very lightly and neither Jack nor anyone else seems to be bothered very much by it. And having the least likeable character in the book turn out to be the culprit was pretty anticlimactic. Actually, if you were looking for anything like a real climax scene to the murder mystery plot, it’s doesn’t exist, because Jack is simply not present for the pivotal moment conflict between Miss Volker and Mr. Spizz.

What serves as the final climax of the book, a much-anticipated spin for Jack in his dad’s plane, turns sour when his dad’s idea of a fun prank reveals him to be a big jerk. Jack learns a lesson from this, as is required, but the scene causes the book to sputter out at the end, like it just ran out of gas.

A more successful book of this style would be Holes by Louis Sachar, which is just as baroque in detail, dark in humour, and high in quirk factor, but which is blessed with much more craft and heart. Holes has moments of genuine heartbreak mixed in with the comedy, and I really cared about the characters in that book, probably because the author did not approach them quite so flippantly.

All that aside, the main strength of this novel is its reverence for history. Jack spends long hours reading about historical events, and is smart enough to realize that even when a history book refers to Cortes as a great man, what he did to the Aztecs was not at all heroic. Miss Volker’s view of history is informed by issues of social justice and fighting for the underdog. The town of Norvelt was designed and built for the purpose of giving poor folks a helping hand, and the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt pops up again and again. Miss Volker is forever making thematic links between current events and stories from the past, highlighting the relevance that the study of history can have for us all.

So, points for the lessons of history, but demerits for structure and craft. Considering this book is a Newbery Medal winner I was surprised at how uninvolving it was. I did not care at all about the characters and found the plot disjointed, haphazard, and in the end pretty irritating.



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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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