Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Guess you can see I lifted the image off Amazon, huh?

THIS has been the singular biggest surprise of all the Newbery books I’ve read so far on Sabbatical. I LOVE this book! First, the protagonist is immediately likeable, and by the time in the first chapter that he’s shot a hole (accidentally, of course) in the local Drive-in Theater screen (he didn’t know the gun was loaded) by pretending to shoot the “bad guys”– “Japs” (yeah, it’s set not that long after the end of World War II) in the movie he can see from his backyard, we are hooked to know what on earth will happen to this character.

Zany, and hilarious, heart-breakingly sad, I couldn’t wait to get back to this story in between reading sessions. Paula Danziger (author of Amber Brown series and much more) said that when you write, you should take a blue crayon and a red crayon to your manuscript. Underline everything sad in blue and everything funny in red. Every page should be purple. Jack Gantos accomplishes this with head-over-heels success. This story soooooo deserves its Newbery.

I thought multiple times as I was reading, “How on earth did he think of that??–I wish I’d written that. Wait, some of this has to be lifted from his childhood. It’s too far-out-there to be invented.” And sure enough, this is a fictionalized autobiography. Jack Gantos took a summer in his own childhood and gave it the old “What if?” fiction-writer’s twist. The result? A hilariously heart-breaking story of a kid coming of age in a small town.

Perhaps the very best part is the genious way in which the author weaves in historical information. And We NEVER feel like we are being lectured–or even taught. He’s tied historical information to the plot in a way that works seamlessly. We learn a huge lesson (several, actually) in history and come away with our hearts touched, torn in two, and patched together with laughter, joy, and hope.

Norvelt, the little town and setting of the book, is a New Deal town, set up to succeed by the Roosevelts and named for EleaNOR RooseVELT. The town offers a fascinating backdrop not only for a rifle hole in a movie screen, but for murder, molten wax, a homemade airplane, twisted desires and thwarted romance, driving without a license, girlscout cookie sales, and Hell’s Angels.  My personal favorite is Miss Volker–the best scary-old-woman-we-come-to-adore since Miss Havisham. I say she’s my favorite, but I cannot say one piece of this book is my favorite. It may be one of the most well-woven-together narratives I’ve read since Holes and Because of Winn-Dixie.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. I can’t imagine a person in the country who wouldn’t love this book.

Gantos, Jack.  Dead End in Norvelt. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012.

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