Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Society and Class

By Jack Gantos

Society and Class

Something had to be wrong with me, but one really good advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can't afford to go to the doctor and get bad news. (1.31)

Isn't it ironic, don't you think? And not any of that fake irony, either. We're talking real irony here—the hard, cruel, cold kind. Jack's family doesn't have enough money to go to the doctor, but at least they won't find out that there is something even more horrifically wrong. This has its own morbid sense of logic.

Working people always share the same history of being kicked around by the rich. (2.92)

If you guessed that Miss Volker says this, you would be correct. This is another example of how she works to draw Jack's attention to the social and economic inequalities that aren't always reported in the history books.

"I'd rather everyone have the same basic food on their plate" Mom said, "instead of some rich people eating steak and some poor people eating beans." (4.48)

This is pretty radical talk—but Jack's mom doesn't see it as particularly radical. These are the values that Norvelt was built on, and, to Mrs. Gantos, they're the values it still ought to hold. In her world, everyone helps each other out. Sounds nice, right? What are the good and bad aspects of this kind of thinking?

Dad once said, "Someday I want to live a life where I won't be bullied by my wallet." I wished that someday would arrive soon because his wallet was a really big bully that said "No" and 'Put that back' all the time. (7.22)

No major earth-shatteringly important issue here. This just gives us a view of the family's finances. While they're not dirt-poor, having a little more money would certainly make their lives more comfortable. We also see some nifty personification at work, with Jack's dad's wallet represented as a bully—so we get a little more insight into how clever Jack is.

Cash just means you get to be a big shot and cut to the front of the line [...] or get what you want right away. (7.34)

Jack's mom is really bummed about the decline of the original barter economy of Norvelt, and its replacement with a "cash only" policy. On the other hand, people can have lots of goods, too—so if you've the one with, say, the most jars of home-canned preserves, wouldn't you be able to cut to the front of the line, too? One difference might be that it's a lot harder to hoard, say, a thousand goats than a thousand dollars. You can just leave a thousand dollars under a mattress, but a thousand goats—that's a lot of manure.

"Henry Ford declared that the perfect assembly line factory worker would be a blind man because he could learn one exact task and repeat it endlessly for the rest of his life." (18.12)

The image here is basically that of dehumanization: the worker basically functions as a machine. Great for management, not so great for the workers. Who could possibly want to perform the same exact task for the rest of his life? Or stay sane doing it?

He said his slice of the American pie is too thin in this town. (22.58)

"Piece of the pie" is a figure of speech for getting a share of the country's wealth. And something about using a pie metaphor: there's only so much pie. If I get a big piece, someone else is going to get a smaller piece. Jack's dad sees the world as having an economy of scarcity. There just isn't enough to go around, so you've got to take what you can. But Jack's mom doesn't seem to see the world in that way. She sees the world as full of abundance: there's plenty for everyone, as long as we all share.

"In the Depression, you had pie made out of grass clippings." (22.59)

This is a bit hyperbolic, but yes: people during the Depression were desperately poor. Grapes of Wrath poor. Wearing-flour-sacks poor. Grass-clippings poor? Maybe not quite.

"This was during the war and so having a birthday cake was pretty rare because of the rationing of flour and sugar. We all had eggs and milk because of our chickens and dairy cows. But somehow the friends of Mrs. Vinyl managed to save up enough tablespoons and teaspoons of flour and sugar and they made her a huge cake, and it had to be huge because they also made their own hand-dipped wax candles which were thicker than normal birthday candles and colored with cherry, dandelion, and grape juice." (23.35)

Mrs. Vinyl's gigantic Dr. Seuss-esque birthday cake was the product of self-sacrifice by many different people in the community. We bet that makes it all the tastier.

"[T]hese were all poor white people and they should have seen beyond skin color that everyone had their desperation and poverty in common, as well as the same American dream for a better future for their children." (24.18)

We don't get a whole lot in this book on issues of race and ethnicity, but here it suggests that people have more in common than they have differences. Some of the original Norvelt residents tried to keep black people out of the community—and Miss Volker sees that as a major, major problem. Looks like some people didn't learn their lessons.