Barb Middleton's Reviews > Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
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Feb 28, 12

bookshelves: realistic, good-read-aloud, historical
Read from February 02 to 19, 2012

I finally finished this book and not because it was bad. Quite the opposite. I kept writing in my reading log all the one-liners I liked -inking up 13 pages. Then I started to read the first chapter out loud to the grade 5 classes - many laughing hysterically at the outlandish behavior of the characters. There are 8 classes and it takes 10 days to see them all - throw in the fact I got bronchitis and it got dragged out another week - but voila, I am finally done with the 2012 Newbery Medal winner... and oh boy, is it a winner, from the nose-bleeding main character-named-after-the author, Jack Gantos, to the no-nonsense, unsqueamish, Norvelt historian, Miss Volker.

Gantos is grounded for the summer for shooting off his dad's rifle and mowing down his mother's cornfield. He acts first and thinks later - or doesn't think at all in some cases. He's like a Sherman tank. Plus, his chronic nose-bleeding problem makes it hard for him to hide any emotions; his nose becomes a geiser when he is frightened or lies or gets excited or sees dead people. And this is the summer of death. Death of a town. Death of his neighbors. Death of deer, rodents, corn and his summer vacation. When Gantos becomes the “hired hands” for Miss Volker, little does he realize that his new job involves not only typing the obituaries for Miss Volker who writes for the newspaper, but it means donning his Grim Reaper costume from Halloween, and driving Miss Volker, who also happens to be the Norvelt Medical Examiner, to examine the bodies of people who have died in town. Things become suspicious after about half a dozen old ladies die in the town and whispers of murder spread like "air leaking out of a crypt."

Miss Volker has arthritis that has transformed her hands into "talons of a hawk perched on a fence" and some funny images surround them throughout the story. She asks Gantos to line up her Girl Scout Thin Mints on the kitchen counter so she can sweep them off the edge and into her mouth like she is "scoring a goal in hockey." This will make a fine meal she claims and asks him to also leave a glass of milk with a straw. At one point Gantos who is on his way to play baseball gets stopped by Miss Volker who wants to write an obituary and he knows he's going to miss the game because "Miss Volker always liked to take her time. The hands on her kitchen clock were just as useless to her as her own two hands." Later when they examine a dead body, Miss Volker has to sign the death certificate but she can't write so she has Gantos (whom she calls her hired hands) help her, "I pressed the pen between my hand and Miss Volker's twisted palm and together we managed to slowly scrawl her name; letter by letter, as if we were receiving it from an Ouija board." She drops the phone often when calling Gantos and one time hollers as the phone clatters on the floor, "Dang phone!" When she sees Gantos father hauling a Norvelt home out of town on a flatbed truck she "tried desperately to open the door handle but her fingers were so rusted together she gave up trying and leaned out the open window. 'You should be ashamed of yourself! These are Norvelt homes,' she shouted, "Mrs. Roosevelt said our homes should stay right in town and never, ever be destroyed!'"

Miss Volker talks to Gantos about how each of us carries history within ourselves. How "every living soul is a book of their own history which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories." This is why Miss Volker always links the obituary of a townsperson to a famous story in history. This book did remind me of my own history growing up with five siblings in the suburbs and having a brother who had nose-bleeds that had to be cauterized by a doctor. But there's more to the story than just a person's history. It is the importance of learning from history and learning from past mistakes.

Some readers might find the nose-bleeding gross while others will find it funny. The dad is disrespectful toward other cultures calling the Russians "Commies" and the Japanese "Japs" and some might find it offensive. However, later in the story it is balanced by Miss Volker's obituary that talks about being respectful and as the novel progresses it shows his dad was scarred by the war. This theme makes for interesting dialogue about how people we love and trust don't always think and say the right things. While Ganto's dad is a little crude, insensitive, funny, and sneaky; he's more like an immature boy versus a cruel man. The reader can see where Jack gets his sneaky ways. The two are like conspirators as they defy his mom and plot behind her back to mow down a cornfield, build a bomb shelter, get out of punishment and fly an airplane.

Here are some of the great lines. Have a good laugh.

When Gantos learns to drive Miss Volker comments: "You're a fast learner," she remarked. "You've gone from slow poke to safety hazard in one day."

"Something had to be wrong with me, but one advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can't afford to go to the doctor and get bad news."

Gantos dad bought a military plane at an auction that was cheaper than a car and joked that at the next auction he'd see what Sherman tanks were. "That would be so cool, I thought. I wouldn't have to learn to steer - I could just drive in a straight line and run things over."

Ages 10 and up
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