Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Death

By Jack Gantos


'How does a town die' I asked.

'One old person at a time,' she said deliberately. (2.115-16)

History and stories die with each person's passing, and if the stories aren't carried forward, you get the figurative death of an entire town—especially if younger people do not move in to replace them. But here's the question: everyone dies, and, at some point, that's a good thing (after a long, healthy life). Is it ever okay for towns to die? What's the difference between the death of a town and the death of a person?

When I was first getting to know [Bunny] we were in a viewing room at the funeral parlor looking at a new line of cigar-shaped caskets that were called 'Time Capsules of the Future.' They were made out of polished aluminum and seemed very sleek with a little glass window where the cadaver's face could be viewed. The idea was you were buried with all your favorite things and in a thousand years a relative would dig you up and sift through your rotted remains and stuff. (5.3)

While something about this seems appealing—we'd kind of love to know what our 1000-year-old ancestors were up to—Gantos seems to think that these "time capsules" are missing the point. We don't need to go rooting around in people's graves to learn about the past; all we need to do (and it's a big one) is remember, and respect, our history.

The blistering flames rising above the house were just waving goodbye to everyone who was watching. And even for those not watching it was a piece of history dropping to its knees before disappearing forever. (14.33)

The way Jack describes this scene, the Hells Angels' arson is as bad as murder. The house is personified as someone "waving goodbye" and "dropping to its knees." Sure, burning down a house can kill the inhabitants—but even empty houses have histories. And, if you burn down a piece of history, you're killing all the memories of the people who lived there. As Jack's mom points out: '[I]t says you have no respect for human life, or anything' (14.25).

"How can dying be good for you," I asked.

"When living is worse," she replied matter-of-factly. (15.7-8)

Have you noticed how Miss Volker is willing to answer a lot of Jack's questions (when his parents often ignore these)? Some of the most important lessons Jack learns come out of these exchanges. And we love that she answers him "matter-of-factly." It seems like a lot of adults would try to hide the harsh reality that sometimes, especially if someone is old and sick, death seems preferable. But not Miss Volker. By treating Jack like an adult who deserves to know the truth, he starts to become an adult who deserves to know the truth.

The sharp peaks of her stiff knees and elbows made the sheet take on the shape of a small iceberg. I looked at it for a moment too long and began to think of the frosty remains of small animals I'd find in the woods just as the spring snow thawed. (17.26)

Here's a nice image to help your lunch go down: a morbid visual almost right out of a horror movie. Jack compares the dead body here to an iceberg, and this is a fitting description: cold and stiff (with lifelessness). No wonder his nose starts to bleed.

It was already a good day for death, and I was about to go down in history. (20.3)

You might have this thought, too, if a huge, bearded, tough-looking Hells Angel showed up unexpectedly in your backyard. Luckily, it's just the farrier, though Jack initially confuses him for the biker he saw trying to start the fire the night before. Why do you think Jack thinks it's "a good day for death"?

Death is not a lazy fellow. (24.30)

Certainly not, if we consider how many times we see the Grim Reaper hanging out (literally!) in Norvelt. Miss Volker uses personification to comment on the town's increasing body count. (We wonder: does thinking of Death as a real dude make it more or less scary?) Oh, and the image also parallels the comic scenes of Jack running around in his Grim Reaper costume (complete with plastic scythe).

People will pass on, but we must preserve our history. (25.6)

This is Miss Volker's response to Mr. Greene's editorial about the suspicious deaths. She's saying that each person is a small paragraph in the overall narrative of the town's important history, but it is important that the entire story be preserved. The individuals' deaths should be mourned, but there is no reason for mass hysteria. People die—especially old people, and life goes on.

We thank him for providing food, and even though his death gives us life, it is hard to thank even an animal enough for that. (27.3)

Jack is starting to lose his knee-jerk fear of death as he starts to recognize what he will later articulate as, "Life is a cycle" (28.48)—that the deer's death will contribute to someone's life (in the form of nourishment). And that's not something we should take lightly. (Although we don't necessarily need to break out into song every time we kill a spider.)

There was too much blood for anything good to happen. (27.11)

Too much blood? Try reading this book, which is practically dripping in gore (go check out the "Symbols" section for more on why the book is so gory). Here, Jack focuses on the usual associations of blood: death and pain. There's just too much of it outside of its body for the deer to be okay.