Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

  "historical fiction" age 10-13 
Jack Gantos is known for his wacky series fiction (Joey Pigza) - the type that boys (and girls) will willingly read and chuckle while reading.  The Newbery panel must have thought that Dead End in Norvelt outshone all other American children's publications in 2011 as it selected Dead End for the 2012 Newbery Medal.  Dubbed semi-autobiographical and outrageously fictional at the same time, the author weaves an outlandish tale of summer 1962 in small town Norvelt as young Jack endures a grounding that just might become lifelong if he doesn't heed his mother's wishes.  Jack maintains his grounding his unfair because he didn't know the Japanese WWII gun was loaded when he shot it, and he was only following his dad's orders when he dug up his mother's sweet corn patch. 

Jack's only reprise from the confines of his room are his daily efforts to help his father dig a bomb shelter and his frequents visits to help an elderly neighbor Miss Volker write her obituary columns for the paper.  This neighborly help will require a few trips to the local funeral parlor.  Obit columns, dead bodies, you ask?  What kind of chidren's books includes these, you ask?  Jack Gantos' books of course, and I may add other popular books for this age group, but I digress.  Add in an old airplane, a motorcycle gang, a deer poacher, some poison, and a few Girl Scout cookies and you are guaranteed a successful tale.
Some of the absurd actions of this story make it difficult to give it the label historical fiction, but we do have the setting of a real historical town, one established in the 1930's by Eleanor Roosevelt as a New Deal experiment in providing decent housing to the poor.  In return for their homes, residents were supposed to watch out for each other and barter services whenever possible.  By 1962, the modest homes have aged and some younger residents, including Jack's dad, see the town as a dead end.  And the original residents, especially the widows, seem to be dying a little too quickly.  By August, the newspaper owner and police are suspecting foul play.  Could it be Miss Volker, former village nurse, and resident obituatary writer/historian?  Or are the deaths connected to the Hells Angels gang who are infiltrating the community?  Just thinking about it is enough to give Jack another one of his anxiety-induced bloody noses.

I am always amazed at the vastly different stories that children's authors create and the unique places they take us.  In those respects, this story is a success.  And I am sure juvenile readers will like the dead mice scenes, Jack's blood dripping nose, and the suspense of the book.  They might even find interesting the little "On this day in history" entries that accompany the obituary stories.  But I wonder if they are going to like, or even grasp, some of Miss Volker's lengthy monologues about her historical/social views.  What may be seen as quality writing to literary experts (adults, with adult experiences, remember) often doesn't connect with the average kid reader, unless that reader is directed or led to have that same background knowledge or interest.  Translation to me,  there are probably parts of this book which kid readers will find not interesting or won't completely understand unless they are reading it with a class or with an adult.  Does that make this an unsuccessful book?  No way.  We want readers to stretch themselves and to ask questions.  Reading books that are never different would be boring.  And I truly wish that kids and adults would read together much more often than they do.  Both would benefit. Despite my personal feelings that nothing in this book and its setting of Norvelt resembled the real summer of 1962 that I experienced as a child, I congratulate Jack Gantos on his win and his writing career.

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