Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos has a whole summer planned full of baseball, history books, and war movies when suddenly, caught in the middle of his quarreling parents, he becomes “grounded for life,” ruining everything. Even though he lives in the dying town of Norvelt (originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to help poor families) and there’s not much to do, when his mom volunteers him to help an aging neighbor type up the town’s obituaries, he’s less than thrilled. Soon, though, Jack finds himself absorbed in the town’s history and the “original” Norvelters, as his spunky neighbor calls them, and he’ll do anything to get out of house arrest and over to help her in her task. Soon he’s involved not only with the obituaries but in a feud with an old man who ride’s a trike, play-acting the Grim Reaper, distributing Girl Scout cookies, digging a fake bomb shelter, and a near-constant nose bleed, not to mention a potential murder. Suddenly his summer is anything but dull!

Described as “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional,” Dead End in Norvelt is a most-times funny and sometimes heart-breaking story of a boy coming of age in an old town past its prime full of wacky yet believable characters. Both darker and lighter themes blend with Gantos’ humor as Jack finds himself imbedded in nearly everything going on in town. The relationships between Jack’s parents and himself are enough to fill a book, but author Gantos has woven an entire town’s worth of personalities and interactions together seamlessly. In addition, it is that rare historical fiction novel that avoids feeling like it’s historical fiction, both because of the history fascination of the main character and because it takes place in a (relatively) stable time in American history. It is a novel based on history that revolves around the sheltered world of one growing boy, more an ode to history than anything else. I was most impressed with Jack’s character growth from beginning to end, but my favorite part of the book, by far, was the resident personalities crowding around each other in a dwindling town, all quirky and unique and utterly interesting.

When it comes to a sales pitch, official book description does a pretty good job: “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.” Dead End in Norvelt was the 2012 Newberry Award winner as well as the winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction, receiving high praise and accolades from virtually every reviewer on planet earth. See what Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal have to say, and read the first two chapters here!

Age 9-14

Copyright September 2011

ISBN: 9780374379933

Image from us.macmillan.com