Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Ages: 10+
From nosebleed to nosebleed, and from one misadventure to another - including a cautionary tale about gun safety - Jack experiences a summer that transforms his character. He helps the spinster across the street write a series of obituaries for the last remaining founding residents of Norvelt, who are suddenly dying off in quick succession. He spends a lot of time digging a hole in his yard that may or may not become a bomb shelter. He gets pushed around by the local undertaker's bossy, tomboyish daughter, and witnesses scenes of gruesome death. He gets drawn into a feud with Norvelt's adult-sized tricycle-riding volunteer policeman/firefighter/rat catcher, who has a love-hate relationship with Miss Volker (the obituary lady), and between the whole town and the motorcycle gang that has aimed an evil curse at Norvelt. He witnesses acts of arson, poaching, and practicing medicine without a license, and finally, helps solve a series of murders. And he faces the consequences of lying, sneaking off while grounded, and (possibly) dive-bombing a drive-in movie theater.
In a way, this book reminded me of the Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, with its low-key, down-to-earth, introspective exploration of characters' private lives and matters of the heart, increasingly mixed with over-the-top fantasy and silly high jinks. It takes off like the small plane Jack's father learns to fly, but doesn't go very high; high enough for that down-to-earth stuff to appear smaller and more distant, in perspective, but not so high that it goes out of sight. It has humor, heart, a throbbing vein of sadness, the twitching muscle of a conscience for social justice, and a jangling nerve of creepiness. It shows a fading, failing, but still attractive experiment in a community's way of life; a wistful moment in the life cycle of fragile friendships and family relationships; and a perspective on small-time life that only an unusually observant kid might pick up. It provokes thoughts about community journalism, political ideals, animal rights, economics, courage, history, responsibility, and the essential give-and-take of relationships. Even if the details aren't altogether believable, the heart and the humor are right on target.
Jack Gantos is the author of some 20 "Rotten Ralph" books, five "Jack Henry" books, five "Joey Pigza" books, and several stand-alone novels, picture-books, and memoirs, mostly written for young readers. This book, which won both the Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for 2012, has a sequel titled From Norvelt to Nowhere.