Dead End in Norvelt
What do these things have in common?
- Melting hands
- Girl Scout Cookies
- A bomb shelter
- A giant tricycle
- The Grim Reaper
- Hells Angels
- Old ladies dying
No, they're not images from a post-apocalyptic horror movie. (Although that's a movie we'd like to watch.) They all show up during Jack Gantos's anything-but-ordinary summer, which we get to read all about in Dead End in Norvelt.
Okay, so it doesn't start out looking too great. Jack is grounded for the summer and then hired out to his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, who just happens to be the town medical examiner and obituary-writer.
This is bad news for Jack, because he is freaky squeamish about dead bodies. Plus, he has a bizarre medical condition: his nose bleeds uncontrollably when he's stressed out or scared. He and his nose end up working overtime this summer, as Jack finds himself in the middle of not only a battle between his parents, but also a murder mystery—not to mention a low-speed tricycle chase, an impromptu nasal surgery, and some slyly subversive history lessons.
Set in 1962, the book offers a surreal melding of semi-real characters from Gantos's own hometown who are thrust into completely fictional (and wildly absurd) situations. But don't waste your time trying to figure out what's real and what's fiction. Says Gantos, "[T]he question of what was real or what is not so real are very secondary questions to reading, absorbing and being consumed by the text" (Source).
That said, author Jack Gantos (did you notice they have the same name?) really did work for a Miss Volker one summer, really did suffer from inconvenient nosebleeds (although in the book they are greatly exaggerated), and really did see his father's collection of Japanese war souvenirs.
Thanks to these real-life touches, the book has a nostalgic feel to it, even though it doesn't have an adult narrator looking back over his youth. Think A Christmas Story, The Wonder Years, or The Sandlot: an adult dude thinks back on a pivotal moment in the whole growing-up thing.
Sound appealing? You're not alone. Dead End in Norvelt won Gantos the prestigious Newbery Medal when the book was published in 2011. As if that's not enough, it also won the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction. So don't be scared off by talk of giant tricycles and Eleanor Roosevelt: two prestigious literary-award-giving organizations can't be wrong.
Why Should I Care?
We have a one-word answer for why you should care about Dead End in Norvelt: Occupy.
Okay, so it's going to be a bit more than just one word. Let us explain:
Occupy Wall Street (or Atlanta, or Los Angeles, or Peoria) is a social movement that broke out in parts of the United States in the fall of 2011 and then spread all over the country, and even beyond. These protests were spurred by the economic collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession.
What did the Occupy movement want? Well, one major critique of the movement was that they didn't appear to know what they wanted. But the idea behind the protests was to draw attention to the imbalance of wealth and power in the economies of the United States and other developed countries around the world. Occupy protestors believed that small percentages of populations should not be allowed to control the vast majority of the world's wealth.
Underneath all of the zany characters, morbid jokes and ridiculous situations, Jack Gantos has a much more serious message: issues of social justice and economic inequality matter for today's world, and we all bear a responsibility toward the less fortunate members of our society.
Of course there are many different views in the book (as there are in real life) on how these problems should be fixed. Jack's parents represent two extreme sides of this debate: (1) leave people on their own to get what they can earn through their own initiative, with some as winners and some will be losers (Jack's Dad); (2) pool the community's resources so that everyone is taken care of sufficiently (Jack's Mom and Miss Volker).
Sound familiar? For a while now, this debate between individualism and communalism has been one of the hot-button issues in the United States. While Miss Volker probably wouldn't be out at Zucotti Park hanging with the drum circle and sporting dreads, we wouldn't be surprised at all to see her at the front of the crowd with her "We are the 99%" sign—and Jack's dad shooting back something about the 53%.
Which side would you be on?