Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Memory and the Past

By Jack Gantos

Memory and the Past

When Mrs. Roosevelt spoke at the opening of the school she told the students to learn their history or they'd be "doomed to dust" like one of the Lost Worlds. (2.118)

What's up with the Lost Worlds that keep coming up? No—it has nothing to do with that movie about the rampaging dinosaurs. (Well, on second thought, maybe it does—a little). It's a metaphor for lost histories and lost ways of being. What are some Lost Worlds that you can think of?

Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors. (7.1)

Because obviously the conquerors are going to make themselves look good. Here, Miss Volker hits upon a major lesson she keeps trying to teach Jack: that history often depends on who does the telling. Because of this, a lot of history (of the oppressed and overlooked) goes unrecorded. If this sounds familiar, that's because Winston Churchill said something pretty similar: History is written by the victors.

"'Hey, Dad [...] Which do you think is more deadly? Past history or future history?"

He didn't even slow down to think about it. "Future history," he yelled back without hesitation. "Each war gets worse because we get better at killing each other." (9.29)

Whoa, this one stopped us in our tracks. What does "future history" mean? Well, here, it seems to mean all the wars and major world events that are going to happen, but haven't happened yet. And that brings up something that blows our minds: we're living through history. What's happening to us right now is what, someday, kids will read about in their textbooks. So you'd better pay attention.

History [...] has to be the worst smell in the world. (18.48)

We hate to disagree with Bunny, here, but there's something about the smell of books that gets us all tingly. Okay, but let's take it a little less literally: history sometimes really does stink. It's full of war and death and betrayal, and it can utterly destroy innocent people (or deer) who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

History began when the universe began with a 'Big Bang,' which is one reason why most people think history has to be about a big event like a catastrophe or a moment of divine creation, but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories. (21.42)

Here, Miss Volker seems to see history as a giant library of human memories, and each individual life makes up one slice—or book—of humanity's story. What's cool about this is that it makes all the individual, humble, private lives just as important as the big, world-changing events. History doesn't just have to be the story of great men. It can also be the stories of perfectly ordinary men—and women, for that matter.

A tombstone is a carved page in a book of human history. (23.17)

Maybe Mr. Huffer isn't just greedy after all. He's angry that Mrs. Vinyl's adult kids have decided to cremate her, but he seems to recognize that burial and the tombstone is a way of preserving memories of the dead, and not just ways to maximize his profits. And he has a point—grave rubbings are pretty cool.

His face was like a movie screen of unhappy memories. (23.45)

Jack is describing his father as a pretty unhappy person, someone whose life is a sad history. We want to be sympathetic, but it sure seems like Mr. Gantos hasn't bothered to learn any lessons from his history.

'History lasts forever [...] And we'll be judged by our history.' (23.79)

Not to knock the U.S., but there's always bad along with the good—and we have to learn from the bad just as much as from the good. That's why Dead End in Norvelt mentions several of the more problematic aspects of American history (such as Hiroshima, slavery, and Japanese internment camps). These are all examples of how we might be judged by our history—and how we have plenty of lessons we could learn.

'Don't ever forget your history [...] or any wicked soul can lie to you and get away with it.' (24.24)

Okay, Shmoopsters, Miss Volker has a real point here: if we forget our history, it's a lot easier for leaders or would-be-leaders to convince us to do really stupid things. That should up the stakes in history class.

How could history be filled with so much horror and so few reasons why? (25.32)

Jack is a memorizing machine: he knows names, dates, and events. Here, though, he finally understands that there's a dimension to all this history that has escaped him so far: the reasons why things happen. Now, we're not knocking facts, because you can't do much analyzing if you don't have your facts straight. But facts alone aren't going to teach you any lessons.