DEAD END IN NORVELT Jack Gantos D&M Publishers, 2011 $15.99, 341 pages
If you are looking for a book that makes you laugh out loud, or you are simply tired of dystopian societies prevalent in novels for young adults, “Dead End in Norvelt” is the book for you.
The author, Jack Gantos, is no stranger to books for teenagers, having written the Joey Pigza series. Gantos was born in Pennsylvania and spent much of his childhood moving from place to place with his family. The book is somewhat autobiographical, and a boy named Jack is the main character.
He happens to be grounded for the summer. His parents can’t agree on how to use their land. His mother planted corn in half an acre and was planning to use the profit to buy dinners for the needy. His dad had a different idea; he wanted to mow it all down for a major project — a bomb shelter and a landing strip for his airplane. Jack gets caught in the middle, mows the corn down and is grounded.
He can leave the house only to help Ms. Volker, one of the town’s original residents, write obituaries for the local newspaper. She has arthritis and dictates the obits to Jack, who learns to type and then submits them to the paper.
Ms. Volker might as well be the county historian; she knows every little detail about the residents of Norvelt, a town founded by Eleanor Roosevelt; in fact its name is a combination of parts of her first and land names. Once Ms. Roosevelt received funding to build the town, 250 houses were planned and families had to apply to get the plots. This homestead idea appealed to families because the coal mines had closed during the Depression.
Ms. Volker is also the town’s chief nurse and medical examiner.
Because of the work Jack does for her, he begins to see the town differently. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when Ms. Volker phones Jack and asks him to drive her over to Ms. Dubicki’s house because a “spotter” has told her that Ms. Dubicki hasn’t been seen for awhile and Ms. Volker thinks she might be dead.
Ms. Volker has a contest with the town mortician to be first to get to the homes of deceased residents and declare them legally dead.
Ms. Volker asks Jack to don a disguise and sneak into the house to see if Ms. Dubicki had indeed passed.
The only costume Jack has is his Halloween costume of the Grim Reaper. Jack puts it on, sneaks in and sees Ms. Dubicki in a recliner. He says something to her and she doesn’t respond. He pinches her arm and she shoots straight up, sees Jack, and asks if her time has come to die.
She tells Jack that she would rather wait until her grandson’s birthday. Jack tells her it is all right and that he is in no hurry.
Even though it is not her time to die, the residents of Norvelt begin dying and Jack must help solve the mystery.
Suspects include his mother, who delivers food to the needy, Hells Angels gang members who recently showed up in town, and even Mr. Spizz, who rides a tricycle and envisions himself as town overseer. The story, set in the 1960s, offers unique characters and is a delightful read for people of all ages, not just young adults.
Gantos is best known for his children’s books; he is the author of the Joey Pigza series and won the Newberry Award for one of them.
His first book was “Rotten Ralph,” a children’s picture book.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.