Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
Jack Gantos’s mildly autobiographical novel, Dead End in Norvelt, was the 2012 Newbery Medal Winner. It features Jack Gantos as he navigates the joys and pains of growing up in a small town. Jack’s summer is almost immediately “ruined” when his mother volunteers him to help old Miss Volker. Involvement with her leads to a much more interesting summer than Jack could have imagined.
Norvelt, a town built during the Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt, is dying, one resident at a time. It’s a hard town to live in. Jack’s mother and father clash over it: his dad wants to move, while his mother is loyal to the town. Jack is often torn between the two, most memorably when his dad orders him to destroy the field of corn his mother planted; his dad bought an airplane and needs somewhere to build a landing strip. Jack earns himself a complete grounding for the summer. However, his mother still lets him out to help Miss Volker.
Miss Volker, a former nurse, is now crippled by arthritis and borrows Jack’s hands for her primary duties: serving as the town medical examiner and the writer of obituaries. She is much in demand over the summer, as original Norvelt residents start dropping like flies. Initially, their deaths appear banal. The sheer quantity and coincidence of the deaths eventually arouses suspicion and the final corpse is sent off for a proper autopsy. It is discovered that they were all poisoned with rat poison. Suspicion initially rests on Miss Volker, who helped prepare meals for the elderly residents, but eventually settles on town busybody Mr. Spizz. He poisoned the remaining Norvelt residents because Miss Volker once vowed not to marry him until all the original residents were dead.
This book is entertaining in a rambling, homey sort of way. The narrator has a well defined voice, as do the secondary characters. I loved how quirky they were. They were what kept me reading. The plot was not as delightful as the characters. While it was moderately entertaining, it served more as a foil for the characters than a point of interest in-and-of itself. The author didn’t emphasize the deaths as potential murders, and, while that was nominally the main plot, there wasn’t much tension or build-up. Basically, this is a happy-go-lucky tale of growing up.
I’d recommend this for someone looking for a relaxing story about small town life. There’s not much angst but enough character development to give you an amusing story.