Thin Mints, anyone?
The summer of 1962 has just begun, but for Jack Gantos, it’s already over. Caught messing around with his dad’s souvenir Japanese rifle, Jack is grounded for the entire summer, or possibly his life, depending on the mood of his parents. In the slowly dying town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, there doesn’t seem to be the prospect of much happening, so Jack doesn’t mind when his mother hires him out to help eccentric neighbor Miss Volker with a mysterious project. But rather than the tedious round the house tasks he is expecting, Miss Volker presents him with an odd task: help to write the obituaries of many of Norvelt’s founding members—many of whom are suddenly dying off. So begins a most memorable summer of death, Hells Angels, considerable blood and gore, a particularly nasty man on a tricycle and possibly even murder.
One has to wonder what sort of existence Jack Gantos, author, must have had growing up to provide the basis for the Jack Gantos of Dead End in Norvelt. Simply put, it is a very weird childhood. But, as in much of Gantos’ work, the mix of autobiographical and the gothic, with a liberal dose of dark humor, makes for an entertaining read, and Dead End is a great read for anyone who likes their childhood memories a little twisted. The strength here is the characters: Miss Volker’s obsession with history nearly matches her loathing for her longtime suitor, creepy Mr. Spizz, the town deputy and tricyclist. Jack’s parents are particularly believable in their disputes that often leave Jack in a bind. But my favorite has to be Bunny, the tough Girl Scout and Little Leaguer daughter of the local undertaker. Her toughness and wicked sense of humor provides an admirable foil to Jack’s travails and frequent bloody noses. Would it at all be possible for Gantos to spin off a series dedicated to the adventures of Bunny?
Just named this year’s Newbery Medalist, Dead End in Norvelt would appeal most to readers interested in strong characters and a deep appreciation for the macabre (be warned: readers may never look on Girl Scout cookies in the same light again). If there is a weak point, it is in the plotting: the secondary murder plot seems tacked on and underdeveloped. Still, these are minor quibbles. Gantos, best known for his Joey Pigza and Jack Henry series, has created a memorable time and place in Norvelt, and Dead End would likely appeal to a broad range of readers both young and old.