Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos: a review
Jack Gantos’ summer starts off with a bang-literally. When he accidentally fires his father’s old WWII rifle, he gets grounded for the entire summer. He is only allowed to leave the house when his old arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, needs him to type as she dictates the town’s obituaries. As Norvelt is a dwindling town–even Miss Volker is waiting for all the original residents to pop off so she can fulfill her promise to Mrs. Roosevelt (yes, that one)–it seems as though Jack is in for a dull summer.
But then Jack’s dad forces him to mow down the corn his mom’s been planting for charity to make room for a landing strip. And Miss Volker teaches Jack to drive so he can make house calls on little old ladies while dressed, conveniently, as the Grim Reaper. And then a Hell’s Angel gets steamrolled by a cement truck, prompting a whole swarm of Angels to descend upon Norvelt with their motorcycles, gasoline tanks, and black Nazi helmets “to let everyone know they were evil.” (Jack’s response: shouting “Welcome to Norvelt! We are a friendly town!” while doing jumping jacks, and then taking refuge behind a lavender delphinium when he is spotted.) Miss Volker suspects that the dead Hell’s Angel brought a curse to Norvelt, and sure enough, the old ladies begin to drop off like flies. There’s an awful lot of death in this book, and it’s all entertwined with history and humor.
Despite all the wackiness, Norvelt is a character-driven book. Every character feels so alive and sharply defined, and they all have their more-than-unique traits: Jack’s nose spurts blood at the slightest provocation (and he’s a self-proclaimed coward, so it happens a lot), but he’s also surprisingly resourceful and kind; Miss Volker is a fiesty semi-retired nurse who loves do-it-yourself home remedies and a good argument, especially if it’s with Mr. Spizz, the creepy town busybody who’s been courting Miss Volker since 1912. And some of the best secondary characters get depicted through their obituaries, so the moment you meet them is the moment they die–a clever, sly way to populate Jack’s world, indeed!
All in all, Norvelt seems almost too quirky to be true. But Gantos keeps the characters reined in just enough so you think, well, this could have happened to his younger self. Unlike The Mostly True Story of Jack, where “mostly true” means fantasy super-imposed over reality, Norvelt’s magic lies in its tall-tale charm, where childhood anecdotes take on an embellished sheen. In any case, Norvelt leaves us curious about Jack Gantos, the real Jack Gantos. Though all the nose bleeds seem exaggerated for effect, as Miss Volker tells Jack: If you don’t know our history you won’t know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking.