Understandably, it has a hippy-ish, communal, granola vibe to it. Like Jack's mom explains: "Nobody had any cash. If you wanted your house built, you helped someone build theirs, and then they would turn around and help you build yours. It was the same with everything. I'd give you eggs and you'd pay me in milk" (7.29).
Sound nice? Well, it does have a kind of rural appeal. But as we quickly learn, things changed. Now, if you want something, you have to fork over the Benjamins (or Lincolns ... or Washingtons. Or, in Jack's case, the Jeffersons).
Every small town has to have its quirky characters, and Norvelt certainly isn't lacking in this department. If you envision a 1960s version of Eureka, but with no tech and a lot more boring, you're not too far off. Everyone pretty much knows everyone else, and nothing much ever happens. At one point, the big story in the Norvelt News is that a ferret has gotten stuck in the tail pipe of someone's car (27.6).
Hey, that sounds better than having murder and mayhem strewn across the front page, right?
But Norvelt seems to be rapidly declining. Its original residents are dying off, and most of the people in town don't have very much money. There aren't a lot of people, so there aren't a lot of businesses, so there aren't a lot of jobs, so all the people leave—which just makes the problem worse. It's a vicious circle.
All this leaving and economic depression makes the town feel sort of run down: "But a few [houses] were uninhabited and gloomy-looking with dandelions overrunning the yard and limp gutters hanging loose from the weight of soggy old leaves and broken tree branches" (7.7).
Dead End in Norvelt takes place in 1962, which is right smack in the middle of the Cold War. No, the Cold War didn't take place in Antarctica. The term refers to a period when the United States and the Soviet Union were involved in a long-term political and military standoff.
On one side: the forces of Democracy and Capitalism. On the other side: the forces of Communism, Totalitarianism, and Probably Also the Devil, and Definitely Trying to Take Over the World. (Well, that's the way the U.S. side of the story went.)
No one was actually doing anything, but both sides were building up massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. It was widely believed that a catastrophic nuclear war could break out at any moment—which is why Jack's dad ends up wanting to really build that bomb shelter. This all may sound a little silly to us, but the threat of nuclear war was very real. Lots of people built bomb shelters, and schoolkids had to practice bomb drills just like we practice fire drills today.
So, no wonder everyone seems a little wacky: they're all expecting to be blown to bits any second.