Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Jack is our hero—but to be honest, he's not much of a hero, at least at first. Instead, he's a skinny twelve-year-old with a tendency to get nosebleeds and not much of a backbone. (Okay, we don't know for sure that he's skinny—but we imagine he is.)
Step Away from the Book
For one thing, Jack does some dumb stuff for a brainy kid. For instance, shooting his dad's sniper rifle before making sure it's not loaded. That, Shmoopsters, is a dumb move. (In fact, here's a tip: just don't pick up the gun in the first place, unless you're actually out, say, hunting something. With a responsible adult. And safety gear.)
But for the most part, he's fairly smart. How do we know this? One of his favorite hobbies is reading history books, so we know that he's curious about his world. His physical description captures this: "My brown curls stood up like a field planted with question marks" (2.7).
You know what they say about curiosity and a member of the feline species, though? Because he's so curious, Jack is prone to being distracted, like when he gets the ticket for the weeds obstructing the gutter. He took a break from his work, and ended up getting so caught up in a history book that he never went back to properly dispose of the weeds.
This action comes back to bite Jack later in the novel. You see, because Jack doesn't want his mom to find out about the ticket, he ends up letting Mr. Spizz talk him into buying poison for him in exchange for cancelling that pesky ticket. So, Jack becomes an accidental accessory to murder, and also a suspect, since Mr. Spizz later tells the police that Jack bought the poison. Luckily, Jack avoids any real trouble from this, since Mr. Spizz ends up confessing, but big trouble is narrowly averted.
Moral of the story? Finish your chores before picking up that page-turner—even if it's a respectable history book rather than a sparkly vampire tome.
Asking the Right Questions
But this curiosity isn't all bad. Jack's insatiable need to know about things (whether it's the history he reads in books or the "whisper history" of Norvelt gossip) actually ends up helping him to mature.
For example, take the moment he decides to sneak out of his house at night because Bunny has promised that she will tell Jack why her dad is selling the Norvelt houses to Eleanor, West Virginia. This is a secret that Jack's just been dying to learn about. Now, sneaking out of his house might not seem like the most mature action, but it actually ends up helping him gain courage.
The little escapade leads him into dangerous situation where he and Bunny are confronted by a Hells Angel who is trying to burn down a house. While Jack isn't very brave (he runs away—smart boy), his experience does help him step down the road to more courage.
The Diary of a Kind-of Wimpy Kid
Jack's little nosebleed problem gives him a sort of "wimpy" feel, especially compared to spitfire Bunny. Miss Volker even calls him a "spineless jellyfish" at one point, because he seems like he's afraid of everything (2.63). (Um—not nice, lady.)
But it's no casual phobia. Jack's fear of death is real, and it's serious. In his own words: "[T]he subject of death made me pale and feel cold except for the very tip of my nose, which was heating up like a match head about to combust" (5.5).
By the end of the book those gross nosebleeds—the major symbol of Jack's fear—go away. (Check out "Symbols" for more thoughts on blood.) Just before the novel's end, Jack and his Mom are confronted by a masked poacher, who has just shot a deer.
Fear and stress? Check. Death? Check. Jack's nose should be gushing right now, but … is doesn't happen. He's coming to terms with his fear, and he's already begun to show his new bravery: learning how to drive, manning up when Miss Volker performs commando surgery on his nose (twice!), and stopping a Hells Angel house-burning in progress (well, kind of—and accidentally).
Jack even recognizes his own courage in this scene: "But instead of turning away in fear I knelt down and placed my hand over the eye" (27.61). So, even though he sees himself reflected in the dead deer's eye (reminding us that he's still vulnerable), Jack is able to comfort the dying deer without completely freaking out and bleeding all over the place.
Jack's moment of courage with the dead deer prepares him for some major change. Here's the place that gives us a big hint that this is coming: "I stood up and closed my door and sat on the edge of the bed feeling very different from myself. Maybe I felt like a city before it was invaded. Or a ship before it sank. Or happiness before it turned into sadness. I couldn't say exactly. But something was about to change in me" (28.11).
Just in time for one final act of bravery: he stands up to his dad, and tells him that scaring people at the movie theatre by throwing paint-filled balloons at the screen is not funny; it's stupid.
And sure enough, in the very last paragraph of the book, Jack voices what he has learned, just as though Miss Volker is writing about it in her This Day In History column: "On the morning of August 17, Jack Gantos was released from being grounded by his parents. But stay tuned because on August 18 he might be grounded all over again—unless he remembers his history!"
He's a Good Kid
We won't lie to you: Jack gets into plenty of trouble. He's even been known to "melt a plastic army man over a burner on the stove when [his] mother isn't looking" (2.1). (Who doesn't like a little toxic stew for breakfast?)
But for the most part Jack is a good kid. He's polite, and only uses the fakest of fake swear words ("Cheeze-us," which is basically one step up from "Gee wilikers!"). Our boy Jack honestly has the best of intentions when he makes questionable decisions and then has to pay for the consequences—like, he really does plan to pay for that ticket for gutter obstruction. (So it's okay that he doesn't tell his mom about it—right? right??)
It's important that Jack's a good kid, because it ties him in to the whole "spirit of Norvelt" thing that the book has going on. He has a strong sense of duty and compassion to his fellow citizens that increasingly guides his actions in the novel.
First of all, Jack doesn't like to disappoint authority figures. That's why he gets caught in the battle between his mom and dad. In wanting to please both of them, he ends up making both of them mad. Think about how Jack cuts down the corn because he wants to make his dad happy by helping him build the runway and bomb shelter. And he tries to please his mom by using the ONE FLIGHT IN THE J-3 coupon to instead play baseball (disappointing his dad in the process).
Jack also doesn't want to disappoint his best friend, Bunny, who's not thrilled that he's gotten himself grounded for the summer. She continually tries to get him out of the house (and possibly into more trouble), but Jack shows his developing maturity by canceling an afternoon playing baseball with Bunny when Miss Volker shouts out to him as the two pass her house:
Bunny shot me a look. 'Play like you didn't hear it,' she chuffed.
'I can't,' I replied, and slowed down. 'She needs me.' (17.18-19)
Here, Bunny challenges Jack's kindness, compassion, and sense of duty—but he's strong enough to resist, because he's learned that being a part of the Norvelt community is not all happy colorful butterflies and rainbows like his mom makes it out to be. It also involves working hard to balance the competing, annoying, but vital demands that people make on him.Jack Gantos's Timeline