Thursday, March 1, 2012
REVIEW: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Genre: Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Humor
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Summary: Jack Gantos can't seem to stay out of trouble. It's the summer of 1962 and, after an incident with his dad's collectible WWII sniper rifle and getting caught in the middle of a parental feud, Jack is "grounded for life"! Now he's only allowed out of the house to help his dad dig a giant hole in the yard and to type up the obituaries for his elderly neighbor, whose arthritic hands won't allow her to use the typewriter. But somehow what promised to be a deadly-dull summer turns into one of the most memorable summers ever, filled with bloody noses, underage driving, Hells Angels, and a suspicious number of dead people.
First Line: "School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it."
I listened to the audio book in my car, and there were moments that I laughed hard enough to become a potential traffic hazard. This is a book with Personality, from the irrepressibly curious Jack to his loving, bickering parents. Then there are all the other zany characters that inhabit Norvelt: Bunny Huffer, Jack's best friend and daughter of the local funeral parlor owner, who gleefully entertains Jack with nosebleed-inducing tales of gore; Jack's uncle, who paints his horse's mane in bold colors for effect; and of course the feisty, history-spouting Miss Volker, who tells it like she sees it and revels in a good argument. Possibly my favorite character was Mr. Spizz, a crochety old man who rides around town on a giant TRICYCLE, handing out citations and offering chocolates in his decades' long mission to woo a resistant Miss Volker. I particularly enjoyed Gantos's narration of Spizz's character in the audio version; every time he called Jack "Gantos boy" in Spizz's wheezy, condescending way, I couldn't help but grin.
Dead End in Norvelt is a great mix of history, humor, and realistic fiction. It is richly layered, but for readers who prefer action and laughs over deep thoughts, the history and life lessons aren't overly intrusive. Like most of Gantos's books, it is loosely autobiographical. Perhaps that is why the book is imbued with so much energy and believability, despite the occasionally far-out scenarios. I very much enjoyed the dark humor, slightly off-kilter (often hilarious!) descriptions, and eccentric characters. Those with an interest in history (particularly admirers of Eleanor Roosevelt) will be especially pleased.
Here's a look at the book trailer:
And here is a brief interview with Jack Gantos after Dead End in Norvelt was selected as the 2012 Newbery Medal winner: