I was a big fan of Dead End in Norvelt, and From Norvelt to Nowhere promised more adventure for young Jack Gantos and his off-kilter elderly neighbor, Miss Volker of the arthritic hands and former lover of a mass poisoner. The book even promised a road trip for this zany duo. What could go wrong?
Lots of things, as it turns out. From Norvelt to Nowhere reads like a sad echo of the prequel. The best part of the book actually takes place before the roadtrip. When a new original Norvelter moves back to town, she falls dead on the same night that Jack chooses to dress up as Mr. Spizz (the mass poisoner, now on the run from the law) for Halloween. But Jack thinks the real Mr. Spizz may be back in town, ready to sweep Miss Volker off her feet now that she really is the last original Norvelt resident. After some spooky Halloween antics, doses of Miss Volker’s acerbic wit and an unfortunate accident involving an air raid shelter, Jack is commissioned into accompanying Miss Volker to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral.
That’s where the novel fell apart. What should have been Jack and Miss Volker’s Excellent Adventure turns into a heavy-handed (and often confusing) series of monologues on love, hate, history, social justice and fighting our inner demons. There are numerous allusions to Jekyll and Hyde and way too many Moby Dick references (in case you’re curious, Miss Volker is Captain Ahab and she intends to spear Mr. Spizz—with a real spear). While the book is still entertaining, it simply lacked focus. Miss Volker monologues for pages on end while I lost track of where they were and the purpose of their trip (ok, there’s a mystery about who really killed the old Norvelt ladies, but it felt weak). Jack, supposedly the main character, starts to feel like the sidekick—one whose only purpose is to drive and protest feebly when Miss Volker starts to get too outlandish. It felt like a story without a point, like the roadtrip was an excuse for Miss Volker to say everything that she never had time to say in the prequel. And while I would happily read a book of Miss Volker’s speeches, I don’t want them to take over what was supposed to be a well-written and (multiple!) character-driven novel.