Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos
The Old Ladies
The poor old women who are poisoned are mostly plot devices that move the action of the novel forward. Too bad for them, right? All of these unfortunate dames were among the original residents of Norvelt (going back to 1934), and are already sick from old age. This amps up the suspense as the story progresses: is someone killing them off, or are they just dying of natural causes?
We also learn more about Norvelt through their stories. Gantos reveals the quirky and often hilarious nature of the town bit by bit with each obituary—and so the old women are also the major way that the novel connects the lessons of History (yes, with a capital "H") to the events happening in the town.
Mrs. Slater was one busy bee when she was alive. She was a beekeeper (a really important job in a farming community, because of the pollination—and also the delicious honey), and was also active in the "Mother's Club of Norvelt, the Fancy Hat Club, and the Lutheran Church" (2.79).
Fun fact about the Slaters: they're known for their hard heads (hard like slate, maybe?) (2.77). One notorious Slater daughter had been captured by Indians in the 1830s (heads up: this novel takes place in the 1960s, so we're going with the book's 1960s terminology). The girl was scalped during this kidnapping, but ended up living to a bald old age. She's so hardcore that, instead of hiding her experience, she ends up wearing a "wig made of curly hamster fur" (2.77). We have to ask: just how many poor hamsters does it take to make such a wig?
We kind of want Mrs. Dubicki to be our grandma. She's feisty and fearless, chasing Mr. Spizz off her lawn with her husband's shotgun and telling Jack, dressed as the Grim Reaper, to come back in two weeks, when she'll be ready to die (8.74). She says this will give her time to "wrap up her business" and "say [her] goodbyes," since she is "ready to meet [her] husband in heaven" (8.74).
We learn that she was also fearless as a little girl. Her family emigrated to America from Slovenia during a famine. They nearly starved on the boat trip to America, and Mrs. Dubicki was accidentally left behind on board. Instead of freaking out or giving up, she hid out in the captain's pantry and fattened herself on his food while waiting to be reunited with her family.
To be honest, she does seem a little bit lonely—lonely enough to invite the Grim Reaper (Jack) for a cup of tea (8.78), although Miss Volker thinks that this hospitality "reveals her good upbringing" (8.90). But if our friends, family, and husband were all gone, well, we'd be lonely too. (Although maybe not quite lonely enough to go inviting Death Himself back to our place for a cuppa.)
Mrs. Linga is a nice old lady who has been suffering from a broken hip. She's quite the artist: her house is filled with amazingly lifelike carvings of ducks, and she also carved her husband's wooden leg. Now that is cool. We know that she's a kind-hearted woman, because for many years she helped take care of the mules (used to haul heavy coal-mining carts into and out of the mines) until machines replaced the animals.
Miss Volker describes Mrs. Hamsby as "one of the good ones" (21.40)—and think we know why. As Norvelt's first postmistress, and she saved undeliverable mail throughout her whole career. Miss Volker thinks of these letters as pieces of history: "within the lost letter was the folded soul of the writer wrapped in the body of the envelope and mailed into the unknown" (21.44).
Each room in Mrs. Hamsby's house is wallpapered with postage stamps—some with people and some with landscapes. Because of this, her house is like a "tiny museum of lost history" (21.44)—and you know Miss Volker and Jack feel about history. No wonder she rates so highly in their books. (And this one.)
We don't get a whole lot of info on Mrs. Vinyl. The main anecdote that Miss Volker tells about her centers on Mrs. Vinyl's 60th birthday party, which took place right in the middle of World War II. All of her friends contributed "teaspoons and tablespoons" of flour and sugar to help bake her a huge birthday cake (23.35). What does that show us? Well, during World War II, those items were rationed. People were only allowed to buy a certain (small) amount at a time. And you're not going to give up your precious baking supplies for someone you only kinda-sorta like.
Since Mrs. Vinyl dies on August 6, Miss Volker uses the obituary to share some history about the bombing of Hiroshima. And as a nice morbid touch, author-Gantos gives us an image of the partygoers having "black lips as if they had eaten a plateful of ashes" after eating the cake—which had burned when the birthday candles blazed up too high (23.35).
The only thing we really know about Mrs. Bloodgood is that she fought against the first African-American family (the Whites) moving into Norvelt. And isn't that enough to know? She got all of the town's residents together to make sure that that the family's application to live in Norvelt was denied (24.18).
This is one of the few instances where the book raises issues of race and ethnicity, which really would have been on people's minds in 1964. Mrs. Bloodgood's name even speaks to this issue: She felt that African Americans did not have "good blood" (were not equivalent to whites), so should not move into the town.
We don't like to speak ill of the dead, but, yikes. It's hard to get too sad about this one.
Rounding out the old lady crew is Mrs. Droogie, a violin prodigy who had played with the NY Philharmonic Orchestra—and all around the world. It turns out, though, that Mrs. Droogie only did this to please her parents (apparently they had tiger moms even back then). So, at the age of 23, she quit. Just like that.
So, instead of being a world-famous violinist, she ends up marrying Mr. Droogie, who made his living by dressing up as a clown for children's birthday parties. She then "became famous for her laughter" (26.47), which is a different sort of music. Mrs. Droogie is a good example of Miss Volker's insistence that "self-love" is the most important kind of love: "[Y]ou don't have to do what your parents want or what your boyfriend wants for you to be happy. You just have to be yourself, for there is no love greater than self-love" (26.48).