Newbery Project #2: 2012’s Dead End in Norvelt

dead endI was excited for this one! I really like Jack Gantos. I think Joey Pigza has actually made me a better person. That character taught me how to empathize with the student who is doing something so insane it makes me want to throw them out a window. I loved that his memoir, Hole in My Life, gleefully demolishes the stereotype of the sweet-little-old-lady children’s book writer. He is funny and insightful and honest about how just about anyone is capable of making some pretty gigantic mistakes. I bought Dead End in Norvelt long before this project started, I would have eventually read it, self-imposed challenge or no.

Also, it’s a welcome counter-argument to my theory that the Newbery tends towards the sad and serious, and only on my second book!

BUT I ended with some mixed feelings!

Dead End in Norvelt is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place over one summer in 1962. Jack gets himself grounded for the entire summer, and is allowed to leave the house only to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, the town obituary-writer, historian, and medical examiner. Luckily, Miss Volker needs a lot of help and the help she needs, given her many occupations, is pretty interesting.

The book is autobiographical in that the character’s name is Jack Gantos, he’s Gantos’s age as he was in 1962, and he lives near where Jack Gantos spent a good deal of his early childhood. It’s difficult to determine how much more of this is autobiographical. If wikipedia is to be believed, the superficial details of his family are not the same in real life as in the book. Book Jack is an only child, Real Jack is not. His parents seem to have different jobs. As far as I can tell Real Jack never even lived in real Norvelt, just nearby. And as for the events in the book, well, ack!

I loved the beginning of this book. Jack’s voice is engaging and funny and observant. He, like his source material, is curious and kind but also prone to making some poor decisions. The scene when he first goes to help Miss Volker and she is soaking her hands in hot parafin wax to treat her arthritis was amazing. It was hilarious and believable and clever. It establishes one of the more interesting relationships between two characters in a kids book than I’ve read in a while. A lot about Miss Volker would be terrifying to other kids, and while her hand-cooking scene in the beginning definitely rattles Jack, after that he seems pretty unflappable. An old lady who writes obituaries and has to go check on dead people to sign their death certificates with her useless claw hands would have scared the crap out of me as a child, but Jack is unfazed. In fact, Jack genuinely enjoys Miss Volker and she seems to appreciate him, too. Their relationship is sweet. It’s also a funny and gentle reminder to readers that the old people they may be weary of hanging out with can be a source of a lot of humor and knowledge. Miss Volker provides a mouthpiece for some of the more fascinating parts of the book with her “This Day in History”s. These two characters and their relationship are the highlight of the book.

The plot, however, is kind of a weirdly-paced mess. The first three-quarters are a kind of mad-cap episodic dash through summer. Jack finds himself in one crazy situation after another, his nose bleeding every time one of those situations is nerve-racking or scary (which is pretty much all the time). Then the last quarter is a bizarre murder mystery.

I found the nose bleeding thing especially off-putting. At the beginning of the book I forgave it, assuming it would serve as a smoking gun at some point, betraying Jack’s real feelings when he is in trouble. One situation after another causes Jack’s nose to gush blood all over everything in a mile radius, and nothing ever seems to change. No consequences come from Jack’s bloodbaths. They happen, then they stop, then by the end of the book they stop for good. The only purpose they’ve served is to make a lot of scenes a little grosser. No thanks!

The series of crazy events are fun and funny and exciting, but they grow tiring earlier than they should. Dead End is a long book. It’s a good three times as long as last week’s The One and Only Ivan. I don’t mind a long kid’s book, but Dead End could have done with some editing.

I won’t say much about the last quarter because spoilers. I’m just going to leave that at “WHAT? Uh, okay.”

When I finished this book I set it on the coffee table and said to my boyfriend “Well, that was a weird one.” I then gave him a quick, spoiler-filled summary and his response was “That sounds like the one time I tried to read a David Sedaris book.”

Not a bad summation! A lot of it is funny but often in too mad-cap a way. But you see why people like it.

Would kids like this? Absolutely. It’s funny and Jack is relatable.

Are there “funny bits”? A lot! The opposite of The One and Only Ivan in terms of “funny bits.”

Should it have won? This, I am less sure about. Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now also came out that year. These books have a lot in common. Both are historical fiction that take place over the summer, with boy characters who are good at heart but make bad decisions. Both boys learn a lot from someone older. I haven’t read Okay for Now in over a year, so it’s tough for me to really give them a blow-by-blow comparison, but my gut reaction is that I liked Okay for Now a lot more. It felt like a much truer story, despite Dead End being (probably?) partially true. I am very surprised Okay didn’t get any sort of nod from the Newbery voters. My only guess as to why Dead End got the prize instead of Okay is that Schmidt already received a Newbery Honor for Wednesday Wars, and Okay is essentially a sequel to that.

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