Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Coming of Age

By Jack Gantos

Coming of Age

I glanced at my hair in the mirror. My brown curls stood up on my head like a field planted with question marks. There was no reason to brush it. The question marks would just stand up into exclamation points and then wilt back over into question marks. (2.7)

Okay, aside from the fact that Jack reminds us of a cute little hedgehog here, this is a pretty good introduction to Jack's personality: he has a lot of questions. And when they're answered, he just has more. (Although we're not totally sure what the exclamation points are supposed to symbolize...)

She called me Jack when Dad was gone and Jackie when he was home. (4.66)

It looks like Mom drops the diminutive when Jack's dad is gone, and uses the more adult form of his name. So, she's kind of letting him test drive manhood in his father's absence. Why is this? Does the presence of another man in the house make Jackie seem younger by comparison—or does Jack's dad want to be the only man in town? Is this just another way that Mr. Gantos is keeping his son down?

I really wanted a car. A few older boys I knew were allowed to have a car once they learned how to drive a tractor. And now that I did all the tractor work around the house Dad said that if I could get a car for free he would help me fix it. (4.12)

Much like today, the ability to drive was a rite of passage for adolescents in the 1960s. Only, usually it involves a lot of waiting around at the DMV, and you probably didn't learn how to drive on a tractor. (We learned to drive on a golf cart. But don't tell our parents.)

Watching an old person cry is not the same as watching a young person cry. Old people don't really seem hurt so much as they seem hopeless, which is worse. (14.44)

Well, this is super depressing. Jack seems to be suggesting that old people don't get sad because they never expect anything good to happen, and so they're never disappointed or hurt. Aside from the depressing factor, this is a pretty mature insight for Jack to make. It suggests that he's a pretty thoughtful, compassionate guy, and that the really pays attention to people.

I punched the gas pedal and took off like I was a real man and not some spineless kid who was afraid of a plastic skeleton in a dress. (21.29)

Since Jack equates driving with being more grown up, he tries to show off his mad skills for Mertie-Jo. It's like he wants to replace the image of him screeching like a little girl when he found the plastic skeleton with the image of screeching away in the car. (Listen up, Shmoopers: real men drive safely.)

[I]f you do something bad and forget about it, then you might do the same bad thing again. But if you always remember it, then chances are you won't do the bad thing twice. (23.46)

Jack really lays out the central theme of the book here, but we think it might be too late for his dad. Still, it's an important moment: the student has become the teacher, the trainee has become the Jedi, the Karate Kid has become Mister Miyagi—you get the point.

I was young and I only wanted to think about the living. (24.13)

Although Jack starts to come to terms with death over the course of the novel, he gets off to a bad start—the minute he's in the presence of a dead body, his nose starts to bleed. It's not like this is an irrational fear or anything, but we still get the sense that learning to accept all parts of life—and not just the, you know, living parts—is key to growing up.

[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)

Jack is so worried about disappointing people that he doesn't' have any time left to figure out who he wants to be. Enter Miss Volker who, in classic guide-and-mentor guise, is here to tell him that all he needs to do is be his own person. Okay. Easier said than done, right?

I looked directly down at the dead deer, and in its shiny eye I could see myself reflected. But instead of turning away in fear I knelt down and placed my hand over the eye. I loved that deer. It never did anything wrong in its entire life except to be in the wrong place. History could be like that, especially for the innocent. (27.61)

There's some pretty heavy symbolism here. Covering the deer's eye is an important action—Jack doesn't want to equate himself with the dead animal. He might be growing up, but he still doesn't want to be reminded that sooner or later, this will happen to him.

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)

Jack connects his childhood to the Lost Worlds that he has been reading about. He is starting to see his childish self as something he's about to lose. It's bittersweet, because he has to let go of something precious to him in order to embrace something else that will be precious in a different way (his older, wiser self). Although—to be honest, the comparison to a sinking ship isn't too inspiring.