Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Jack lands himself in big trouble at the very beginning of the story. First, he shoots his dad's sniper rifle at the drive-in movie theatre screen (an accident), but then he really seals his fate by mowing down his Mom's corn (on purpose). Now grounded for basically life, his summer vacation is shaping up to be a dead end. But here comes a summer job to make it a bit more interesting: working as scribe for the town's medical examiner and obituary writer. Scene set, and ready for action.
So Many Secrets, So Little Time
Most of Norvelt many conflicts revolve around secrets, and Jack is progressively caught up in one giant, sticky web of deceit. He can't be perfectly honest with his mom, because he would betray his dad; and he can't be perfectly honest with his dad, because—well, you get the idea. Plus, he has Mr. Spizz breathing down his neck because of that ticket for "gutter obstruction" that Jack wants to hide from his mom.
One big problem? Jack can't seem to stand up for himself. This rising action of lies gets us ready for a big, final reveal.
Dropping Like Flies
But not yet.
Just when Jack thinks the summer couldn't get worse (or is that better?), the old ladies of the town start dying, one after the other. While his job as obituary scribe allows Jack to learn more about Norvelt's residents and history, the deaths certainly add an extra dose of stress (and many more bloody noses!) to his summer. Who is the culprit? The Hells Angels? The owner of the funeral parlor? Jack's mother? Miss Volker?
This tangle of bodies and suspects is a big fat puzzle that Jack has to clear up before fixing the problems in his own life: and that's one major complication.
Miss Volker did it. In the kitchen. With the poison. (Or not.)
When Miss Volker is accused of the murders, Jack experiences a crisis. He's torn between his suspicions of his mentor and his trust and admiration for her. Plus, Mr. Spizz threatens to implicate Jack in the deaths. Oh, yeah, and the Hells Angels are burning down houses. This is a climax all right: things had better clear up fast, or it's all going to burn up in a big fire of misdirection.
The Masked Man
Guess what? It wasn't Miss Volker at all, but Mr. Spizz, who was carrying out the poisonings. Also? It turns out that neither Jack nor his dad loaded the rifle after all: it was Uncle Will, the "confused jerk" who is apparently also a deer poacher (1.15). When the action starts to wind down, Jack shows off his growing maturity by not getting a nosebleed when confronted by Uncle Will and a dead deer. Yay, Jack!
Never Forget Your History
When everything settles down, Jack recognizes that he has learned some important lessons, but also accepts that he's still pretty "stupid" (28.108). He's even come to terms with his dad's immaturity, but realizes that he'll never grow up unless he remembers his own history and learns from it. We're betting this is one summer he'll never forget.