Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Ages: 10+

In a fictionalized version of a summer in his childhood, award-winning children's author Jack Gantos brings to life the model community of Norvelt, Pa., in the twilight of its life cycle. Norvelt, named after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, began during the Great Depression as an experiment in giving laid-off coal miners an opportunity to live with dignity, owning their own homes, operating businesses, growing gardens, bartering goods and services, and being self-sufficient with just a little, initial boost from Uncle Sam. It was, frankly, kind of a Communist idea, and was ultimately doomed by the market forces of a country with a cash economy. By 1962, Jack is torn between his mother, who still believes in the Norvelt dream, and his father, who has grown disillusioned with the dying community and wants to move to Florida, where there is plenty of work building houses for rich people. Young Jack's dilemma comes to a head when his father orders him to mow down his mother's garden, so he can build either a bomb shelter or a runway. Caught between direct orders from each of his parents, Jack finds himself grounded for the summer. It's enough to make the boy's nose bleed, though to be sure, that doesn't take much.

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.

No comments: