Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jun 28, 2012

I like to put things on hold at the library. And I exercise this right What this means is that my hold list is usually maxed out at 25 items. It also means that almost without fail, items I've been waiting for for a long time all converge on the library at the same time and leave me completely swamped.

As soon as I found out that Dead End in Norvelt won the 2012 Newbery, I reserved the audiobook. But wouldn't you know it? After waiting for six weeks, it came at just the wrong time. I returned it without listening to a word. I put it on hold again. After waiting for another several weeks, it arrived with another pile of long-awaited books. I took it back.  By the time I reserved it for the third time, the post-Newbery rush had died down, and I received it immediately when I had plenty of time to listen to and enjoy it. And it was the perfect summer read, so I'm glad I waited anyway.

Set in the 1960's, Dead End in Norvelt is about 12-year-old Jack Gantos, who is grounded for the entire summer due to the accidental firing of his father's gun AND the purposeful mowing down of his mother's plot of corn. The grounding is only temporarily lifted anytime he has to help his rheumatic neighbor, Miss Volker, write up the obituaries of the "original Norvelters" as they pass away. Besides that, his father is building an airplane and some angry, revenge-hungry Hell's Angels are setting homes on fire, so even with the grounding, the summer isn't too dull. But when the old ladies start dying with increasing frequency, the whole town begins to suspect that things are not as innocent as they seem...

Turns out, although heavily fictionalized, this story is built on a foundation of truth. According to an author interview I listened to, Jack really did live in Norvelt, one of Eleanor Roosevelt's project towns. He really did have epic nosebleeds. And there really was a Miss Volker, although she had a different name. I wish the interview had been longer. I would have loved for him to go through the story piece by piece separating the fact from fiction. Then again, maybe knowing what wasn't true would have made the book lose some of its appeal.

When this won the Newbery, I heard titterings of disappointment all around the internet. No one expected it to win. And, once it surprised everyone and did win, many thought it was undeserved. I know there were some strong contenders among the favorites, but after finishing this book, I had no trouble giving it my whole-hearted, two-thumbs-up approval as a Newbery medal winner. Here are some reasons why:
  • Jack exhibits tremendous character growth. The story begins with him making some stupid decisions that lead to unpleasant consequences. As he helps Miss Volker, learns more about the history of Norvelt and history in general, and spends more time with his parents, he becomes kinder, more sensitive, smarter, and more independent. In the final scene, during a critical moment, he has the choice to either do something stupid again or make a more mature decision. I think many 11- and 12-year-old boys will be able to relate to Jack's decisions, and hopefully, man up and make the right decisions themselves.
  • The book is full of history: Jack reads about it in his bedroom; Miss Volker tells about it in her candid way. It's interesting and exciting, and each event has a point and moves Jack's story forward. I love it when learning doesn't feel forced. And it doesn't feel forced here.
  • It's funny. I guess some people think a funny book shouldn't win the Newbery, but why not? I love reading a book that makes me laugh out loud. And there were a lot of those moments in this book. 
    • For example, when the whole fleet of Hell's Angels come roaring into town, Jack gets really nervous and starts doing jumping jacks and shouts, "Welcome to Norvelt! We are a friendly town." I don't know why, but this scene struck me as incredibly funny.
    • One more example: Jack's nose bleeds whenever he gets nervous or scared or sick about anything. This leads to many funny scenarios, not the least of which occurs when Miss Volker operates on his nose (twice). In the middle of one of the procedures, the phone rings, and she answers and says, "Make it fast. I'm in the middle of a nose job." Maybe you have to be immersed in the story and intimately acquainted with Miss Volker for that to be funny, but I laughed.
  • There is mystery and suspense and danger. I have to admit I didn't love the ending. I thought there were some unmet expectations that were never adequately explained, but overall I liked this aspect of the story.
And now a word about the audio:

Although I wasn't reading great reviews about the book itself, I was hearing only glowing reports about the audio version of it. Jack Gantos himself narrated it, and everyone said it was just phenomenal. So, knowing that the format of a book can make or break my experience with it, I knew I had to go with the audio.

There's something about having the author read his own words that casts them in just the right light. Jack Gantos isn't an exceptional reader per se (it's not like he use a wide variety of accents and voices like some narrators), but he gets the inflections just right...exactly like he heard them in his head when he wrote the book, and that counts for a lot. For example, when Jack (the boy) goes over to Miss Volker's at the beginning of the story, she has her hands in a boiling pot of wax. She's talking to Jack but her voice is strained and tight and chopped up because she's in so much pain because of the heat. Jack Gantos (the author) chopped up the words just right to give it the right effect. I just felt like having him as the narrator helped me get to know the characters on a deeper level because I saw them more through the eyes of the one who created them. I can't recommend the audiobook highly enough.

I read a review on Goodreads that said an award-winning novel shouldn't just be entertaining or humorous but that there should also be a "universal, worthwhile theme and dynamic characters who grow and change from their experiences..." This reviewer said Dead End in Norvelt lacked those two elements. With all that I just said above, I guess you know I disagree. I felt like the point of the book was something along these lines:

Don't just learn ABOUT history; learn FROM it; let it influence your decisions and change you. Don't make history repeat itself.

I think Jack (the boy) did just that, and Jack (the author) described it perfectly. Seeing that change made the book not only worth it for me, but also worthy of the Newbery it garnered.


  1. I did like Jack reading this himself, since it was semi-autobiographical, but I have to say that overall the story sort of bored me.

    1. Jen-you're definitely not alone in your opinion. This book has had very mixed reviews.

  2. I liked this book when I read it--there were moments when I laughed out loud. I debated about letting Steven read it--death seemed to be taken kind of lightly. But one day he was out of books and enough time had passed that I had mostly warm feelings about the book and I let him read it. He loved it and laughed out loud, too. He had it read in a matter of hours and wanted to discuss it with me--that doesn't always happen.

  3. You have totally convinced me to grab this one on audio. :)
    I've heard it's great.
    I heard an interview with the author and he sounds very interesting.
    Thanks for the great review.


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