Young Jack Gantos has a great summer planned, until his father's rifle goes off unexpectedly while Jack is holding it. So between that accident and the fact that he mowed down all of his mother's corn because his father told him to, Jack is grounded all summer. His only reprieve is when he has to help his neighbor, Miss Volker, write obituaries and help with other errands. This summer is full of deaths though, with several of Norvelt's original resident passing away and one Hell's Angel. As more and more residents pass, their houses are being sold and moved to another nearby town, and it seems that Norvelt is dying too. Jack learns from Miss Volker that history is living and happening every day, and that all events can be connected. Thrown into this story are also ridiculous stories about a painted pony, kitchen surgery, feisty Girl Scouts and an old man on a tricycle. This is a highly readable, entertaining Newbery.
That's the short of it. Let's dig deeper.
Jack is caught between his mother and father in this book, and you can see that it immediately gets him into trouble. While he shares his mom's common sense and compassion, he also has his dad's sense of adventure and danger. The most interesting part of this story to me was his relationship with Miss Volker. I think that he really came to care for her like a family member. At first, helping her with the obituaries is just a way to get out of the house, but as the summer drags on, it becomes it's own adventure, especially since he gets to drive her car. Plus the scene where he is dressed up as the Grim Reaper to check on Mrs. Dubicki is too funny. He was such a polite Grim Reaper!
Bunny is a great character too. She's so feisty and daring, which Jack wants to be, yet she's rather inconsiderate too. Everything needs to be action and adventure for her, and she can't stand to sit and read the way that Jack does. The very idea of Girl Scouts being on fire patrol against Hell's Angels is pretty funny, but with Bunny on their side, I'd say that the Girl Scouts have the advantage.
And the surgery! Why on earth would Jack let Miss Volker stick hot pokers up his nose?! It worked, but what a scene.
What I like most about all of Jack Gantos' books is that he writes books that are funny and engaging for readers, but they have this great underlying message. Here he relates a whole lesson about community and history wrapped up in a strange summer. That really takes talent. It's a skill that several excellent author's have, like Richard Peck and Gary Schmidt, both of whom have been honored by the Newbery committee. I appreciate that the Newbery committee recognizes this type of entertaining yet heartfelt work, because it does not come easy.
Jack Gantos writes his books in a semi-autobiographical style, with the exception of his actual biography, Hole in My Life, which details the time that he spent in prison as a young man for transporting marijuana. This isn't a fact that he tries to hide anymore, since all of his experiences make up his world view, and but I do think that because of his childhood and because of his time in prison, he writes wonderfully flawed characters with a redemptive quality. Like the former Hell's Angel that came to re-shoe War Chief. That was a great teachable moment in the book.
Dead End in Norvelt is a fantastic book, and so worthy of the Newbery. This will be an easy Newbery sell, right up there with Holes, The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me. Well done!!