Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Community

By Jack Gantos


[I]t's good that people around this town know how to help out in different ways. (1.52)

From the very beginning we get a sense of how the town of Norvelt operates. Jack gets scared when the ambulance shows up at Miss Volker's after he has fired the Japanese sniper rifle, but when his Mom explains that the ambulance driver is also the plumber, we get our first clue about the town's community spirit.

We are grateful for her community service, especially her years as a school crossing guard where she was much loved by the children. (2.80)

In the book, service to others builds and maintains community bonds. Honestly? This sounds nice. If community means taking care of old people and helping kids cross roads safely, we're all for it.

"Well, if that rich Commie woman wanted to help poor people, she should have just given them a big fat check," Dad suggested. (4.45)

Sure, everyone likes a big fat check, but Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to do something that would last a little longer than money. What's the distinction the book is here trying to draw between a "handout" and a "hand up?" How do we still see debates about this in contemporary society?

There was a half acre of green corn that Mom had planted. She was going to sell it, then use the money to buy food for the charity dinners she cooked. (4.7)

Talk about Jack's mom being nurturing: she's actually planted an entire half acre of corn that she's going to see just so she can buy food to give away. We imagine she and Mr. Gantos have had some pretty spectacular arguments about this this plan.

No-body 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)

Here's the "Communist Center" (as Jack's Dad would say) ethic at work. It's important to remember that the town was created for poor people to learn self-sufficiency, but trading helped reinforce community bonds. That's breaking down now, since cash has taken over as the main way to buy things—but with cash, Gantos seems to be saying, comes a really individualistic, uncharitable way of looking at the world.

If Spizz and those Community Center guys help us, the next thing you know they'll want to help fly my plane and share our bomb shelter. (9.41)

Jack's Dad doesn't play well with others. He's afraid that if he seeks help, he will be obligated to help others out in return, but what he doesn't see is that communities can actually be stronger if people help each other out. Hey, maybe he could even help some neighbors build their own bomb shelters!

But in a small town you have to forgive people for their faults no matter if you want to or not. (10.4)

Why do you think that this is particularly important in a small town? Why might it be different in a big city (where people mostly don't know each other)? (Although, from our experience, no matter how big the city is, you're still bound to run into your ex on laundry day.)

[H]elping others makes you a better person. (13.35)

Having Jack volunteer time at a hospital appears a rather odd birthday present for his parents to "give" him. What do you think his Mom is attempting to do with this gift? What is she trying to develop in Jack? And how bummed would you be if this were your only birthday present? (Luckily for Jack, it's only one.)

Bunny shot me a look. 'Play like you didn't hear it,' she chuffed.

'I can't,' I replied, and slowed down. 'She needs me.' (17.18-19)

Jack is learning about his responsibilities to others. Sure, he's just traded his coupon for flying in the airplane in exchange for an afternoon of playing baseball. But he's also made a commitment to helping Miss Volker. So, even though helping her threatens to disrupt his one day of fun, he recognizes and honors his duty to her. Yay, Jack!

Let us be good neighbors and build communities where the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life, rather than merely staying alive just so we can cower from fear. (25.6)

How does Mr. Greene's editorial threaten to create fear and tear down the community? What are some important parallels that Miss Volker draws in her response? Is Miss Volker right—or does Mr. Greene raise some good points?