Mark's Reviews > Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
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Apr 13, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: coming-of-age, death-and-dying, history, humor, newbery, young-adult-literature, engl-492-spring-2015
Read from February 08, 2012 to April 12, 2015

"'Let me show you,' I said. I grabbed Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, flipped it open, shoved my face into the gutter of the book, and inhaled deeply through my stuffed-up nose. When I lifted my face from the book I swooned and said dreamily, 'Ahhh, that was a good one. Now you do it.'

She reluctantly grabbed Custer's Last Stand, flipped it open, and stuck her little curled-up cashew-size nose into the gutter. She gave it a good sniff, then dropped the book and staggered against my dresser. 'History,' she said, gagging a bit, 'has to be the worst smell in the world. Maybe that's why when you die and people say you are history they mean you smell as bad as a rotten old dead person.'

'History isn't dead,' I said. 'It's everywhere you look. It's alive.'

'Well, I'm looking at history,' she said, pointing at me. 'You used to be a friend, but now you stink as a friend! I came here to give you a second chance and you make me smell the crotch of an old book.'"

Jack Gantos lives with his parents in 1962 Norvelt, PA, a small village in the western part of the state. Norvelt got its name from Eleanor Roosevelt, and its sense of dignity and opportunity for all from the former First Lady's spirit. But Norvelt has fallen on hard times in recent years, and a number of the original residents are dying out. Enter Jack: grounded for the entire summer after firing off his father's old WWII Japanese rifle, and then mowing down his mother's corn crop (at his father's request), Jack feels his summer will be wasted. His mother allows him to leave the house, though, to assist Ms. Volker, an arthritic old woman who composes the town paper's obituaries, and who needs Jack to transcribe her thoughts. As the older residents follow one another to the grave over the summer, Jack and Ms. Volker have plenty of opportunities to work together, and strike up a friendly relationship. Jack's mother was born in Norvelt, and still tries to see the town she remembers in the present, while Jack's dad wants nothing more than to leave Norvelt to seek his family's fortune elsewhere. Even in the midst of his summer imprisonment, Jack manages to drive a car, fly in an airplane, examine a dead Hell's Angel, read volumes of history, help solve a murder mystery, and even end his lifelong trend of anxiety-related nosebleeds.

This was a very fun and fast read. If you've read any other Gantos books (other than probably Hole in My Life), the voice and comedy will seem familiar. Small town quirky characters abound in the novel, but even more so than the current events Jack is involved with, I was impressed with the way Gantos (the author, not the autobiographical character) weaves the importance of history (and knowing your own history) throughout the story of Jack, and of Norvelt. The novel captures a particular slice of time in American history, while the Cold War raged, and small towns like Norvelt struggled to transform, or died out. It's easy to read this and see where Gantos got some of his dark, twisted sense of humor. An excellent read - highly recommended.
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