Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Miss Volker is Norvelt's medical examiner and obituary writer. Well-respected in the town (though slightly feared because of her morbid profession), she's "worth her weight in gold" (2.20). That's definitely true for Jack, since she teaches him important lessons relating to responsibility and duty (all of that boring grown-up stuff).
But along the way, she also becomes his friend.
The Nurturer and Caretaker
Miss Volker's jobs tell us a lot about her character. She was hired by Eleanor Roosevelt to be Norvelt's "chief nurse and medical examiner" (2.107), and, throughout her career, she has delivered babies, stitched up countless wounds, set numerous broken bones, and even once "pop[ped] an eyeball back into its socket" (10.67). (Okay, that one's going to trigger our own nosebleed. Or gag reflex.) And when she can't help her patients any longer, she writes their obituaries.
See what all these jobs have in common? Miss Volker is a caretaker and a nurturer. She helps to fix Jack's nose, because the family can't afford to have the town's doctor do it; she writes obituaries to remember the old folks who nobody else cares for. She's a real class act.
Miss Volker is also an amateur historian, becoming mouthpiece for the book's insistence that you have to remember your history. She writes Jack's favorite column in the Norvelt News, This Day In History, and she also connects each obituary with an interesting historical person or event that holds some significance for that day.
We suspect that she might stretch the truth in more than one of these instances, though. One example is when she recounts the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day (July 4). She says that each of them says as their last words that the other still lives (16.71), which seems—dubious.
But we shouldn't necessarily look at this as outright lying, and it doesn't make readers consider her a dishonest character. It's more like Miss Volker participates in the longstanding tradition of American urban legends and tall tales. She, herself, even recognizes this when she says, "Most of what I say is true [...] But if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking" (16.21). She makes meaning out of historical events, and she helps the townspeople find the lessons they should draw.
Champion of Social Justice
Many of Miss Volker's history lessons feature people who are downtrodden and oppressed in some way. Two memorable stories: first, her sister adopted a Japanese baby to save him from going to an interment camp during World War II (14.52-53); second, how the first African American resident of Norvelt came to live there (24.18-20).
She also has very definite opinions on who the "real American heroes" are, such as the anarchists who fight for "workers' rights and justice" (17.63). So, does Miss Volker have a kind of subversive, "occupy" vibe to her? We'd say so. Plus, at one point she even admits that she would "love to step into a hole and vanish with a handsome revolutionary and live a life of exotic adventure" (17.87).
Fun fact? "Volk" means "people" in German. Coincidence? We don't think so. Miss Volker really is a woman of the people.
Tenacious and Duty-Driven
One resident of Norvelt memorably describes Miss Volker as having a "machine gun for a mouth" (27.5). You know: fast, unstoppable, and… lethal?
Well, she's at least feisty, outspoken, and well able to hold her own with almost anyone in town. At various points, she takes on both Mr. Spizz and Mr. Huffer in fast-paced verbal tennis matches. She's also quite the active orator when she dictates her obituaries. At one point, she "sharply enunciated each flinty syllable as if she were using a hammer and chisel to phonetically carve the dead woman's name on a stone crypt" (2.76).
Miss Volker takes her duty to Mrs. Roosevelt seriously. Deadly seriously, it turns out. Since she vowed to write the "final health report" for all of Norvelt's original citizens (2.107), she puts her own life on hold until she has done so, which means she has to stay in Norvelt until all of the original residents have either moved out or passed away.
That's a major commitment, and it means that she can't marry Mr. Spizz (whatev: she doesn't really want to anyway, since she only agreed to it in a "weak moment" [10.56]). What she would really like to do is to visit her sister in Florida, but her duty comes first.
Check out the books that remind Jack of Miss Volker: The Crusades, The Magna Carta, The F.B.I., Women of Courage, Custer's Last Stand (26.67). Why might he have chosen these? What do they say about her?