Book Review - Dead End in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (BYR)
Released:  September 13, 2011
Format:  Audiobook
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Middle Grade (10 to 14 years)
Fiction * Historical Fiction

Description from GoodReads:
Dead End in Norvelt is the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year's best contribution to children's literature and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction!

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a fiesty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launced on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.

My reflections on the book:
I will admit that based on the title and cover I would have completely passed over this book.  Then a friend shared that she liked it so I added it to my list to read.  I was still passing it over for other books and when the announcement came that it had won a Newbery.  At this point, I questioned the decision of the committee's choice.  And still I hadn't read it.  *sigh*  I know I shouldn't judge a book or a committee's judgement by the cover.  However, I still wasn't moving the book any higher in my TBR pile. 

After listening to the interview with Jack Gantos on NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, and learning that Gantos, himself, narrates the audiobook, I decided to try a different approach.  Maybe listening to the book would be a more successful endeavor.  It didn't take more than about one chapter to realize that the audiobook was an excellent choice.  I hadn't stopped laughing as I listened to Gantos read those first chapters of his fictionalized autobiographical story.

The challenge with an audiobook is that is typically takes longer to get through the book.  I listen in the car (though I don't have a long commute) and a little bit in the morning and again at night.  However, I found that as I listened I kept wanting to listen and wanting to find out more about Jack, and the other members of the Norvelt community.  At one point, since I can read faster than the audiobook, I even tried switching over to the book, but by that point I preferred Gantos' voice to my own and just switched back to the audio.

Dead End in Norvelt is a unique book.  As I listened, I couldn't help thinking that it was a book more for adults who want or need to reminisce about a different place and time that no longer exists.  Gantos captures the special nuances and eccentricities of growing up in a small working class community.  It is 1962.  Norvelt which was founded in the 1930's is dying out - figuratively and literally.  Twelve year old Jack is sentenced to a summer of confinement in his room when he gets caught in his parents' feud.  His only reprieve from being in his room or doing chores is when an elderly neighbor with serious arthritis needs his help to write/type up the obituaries.  For Jack, this isn't as bad as it may sound.  Jack likes history and with each death of an original Norvelt community member,  he learns from Miss Volker the history of the individual along with historical facts that she weaves into the write up.  

I liked Jack.  He's a good kid with very frequent nose bleeds, an interest in history, and a penchant for finding himself in unusual situations; some that get him into trouble particularly with his mother.  His friendship with Miss Volker is especially entertaining.  Every time the phone would ring, and Jack would be called to come down to Miss Volker, I would wonder what odd scenario he would find himself in this time.  And the situations are even stranger because parents and adults today would never allow children to do most of these things.  A child driving a car, or purchasing rat poison, or traipsing around checking on dead people is close to nil.  It finally occurred to me that the reason I loved listening to this rather than reading it was that it reminded me of the times when my dad and uncles would sit around the table and talk about the things they would do as children.  

Yes, I loved this one, but I especially loved listening to it.  I also appreciated the extra section in the audiobook where Gantos tells a little bit about what in the book was factual/autobiographical.  

I am afraid though that this one is going to be hard to sell.  The audience for this book is supposedly 10 to 14 year olds.  I am fascinated when I hear a teacher mention that some of her "boy" readers are really enjoying this one.  I always want to know where they are from.  I wonder if this one wouldn't do better with boys in small towns in the Northeast.  Or better yet, I think it would have more success with Baby Boomers who lived through this time period.  

I still am not a big fan of the cover.  And I still wonder about the decision of the Newbery Committee.  However, when I say that now, I can at least back that up with having read the book.  And I, at least, can now identify how I will present this book to children in a way that they hopefully will experience it as a slice of history (even if it is fictionalized). 

Check out the book trailer for Dead End in Norvelt: