I had the pleasure of hearing Jack Gantos speak in 2010 at a dinner during the NCTE convention. He was witty, clever, quirky, and articulate. So it came as no surprise when I read his book, Dead End in Norvelt, that it has the same characteristics that he does.
Dead End in Norvelt came to my attention as I followed various Mock Newbery groups online. This book was mentioned on Heavy Medal's blog at SLJ. As I look at how many post-it notes I put in this book while reading it, I would definitely have to agree with those opinions.
I enjoyed so much about Dead End in Norvelt, but my favorite part of the book was the relationship between the main character, Jack Gantos, and his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker. Together, they are quite busy one summer writing obituaries for the many other elderly people dying in Norvelt (a town named after Eleanor Roosevelt). What is unique about the obituaries that Miss Volker composes and has Jack scribe, then type, are their depth. Miss Volker not only tells the pertinent details about the deceased, but she also connects them to the person's personal history as well as the history of the world. She is so passionate when she dictates the obituaries for Jack.
Miss Volker says:
"History often sheds more light on the present than the past."
Toward the end of the book, Jack sums up why Miss Volker feels it is so necessary to revisit history:
"The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again. That was what Miss Volker had been teaching all these years."
What a great lesson for us all!
One of Jack's quirky characteristics was his perpetual nosebleeds. Anytime he was worried, in trouble, grossed out, or under any pressure, his nose would respond by spurting blood. Of course, the nosebleeds usually happened at very inopportune times; one of my favorites was when he was looking at a dead body for the first time in a funeral home and his nose started dripping blood on the white satin lining of the casket. He had just seen the person's dentures and when wondering out loud why they weren't in the person's mouth, he was told the lips were sewn together so dentures are not necessary. The information proved to be a little too much for Jack.
Between being grounded for the entire summer for disobeying his mother, digging a hole for a bomb shelter for his dad, reading myriads of books on historical events while grounded, helping write obituaries, driving Miss Norvelt's car, and wondering if the Hells' Angels are coming to live in Norvelt or destroy it, Jack is quite a busy guy.
I enjoyed one of Jack's descriptions of himself:
"My brown curls stood up on my head like a field planted with question marks. There was no reason to brush it. The question marks would just stand up into exclamation points and then wilt back into question marks. Besides, I was a boy. It is okay to be a boy slob because moms think they still have time to cure you of your bad habits before you grow up and become an annoying adult slob for someone else."
What a gift of words - it elicited a great visual for me! Passages such as this one and the many obituaries Miss Norvelt dictated remind me of the beautiful language I would expect from a Newbery winner. Starting our "Looking for Newbery" series with Dead End in Norvelt seems like a really good idea!