Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: Mid-20th Century America, Mystery
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade
In the Newbery Award-winning Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos (the fictional one, not the real-life one) has his whole summer vacation stretching before him like the blue Pennsylvania sky-at least, until he finds himself in the middle of his parents' feuding and ends up grounded. He fears that he will see no more of Norvelt, the small town where he lives, than the walls of his own bedroom, but he is given an unexpected reprieve when his mother starts loaning him out to the old woman down the road for chores. His most important-typing up the obituaries for the town paper now that she has become too arthritic to do it herself. His new job teaches him about the history of his town, designed as a modern day Utopia by Eleanor Roosevelt herself for soldiers returning from World War II, and the very flawed people who inhabit it. When the old-timers start dropping dead, Jack senses a mystery to be solved. Despite his parents' fighting, his near constantly bleeding nose, and a few Hell's Angels, Jack helps uncover the disturbing truth about the deaths.
Jack Gantos decided to name his main character after himself, and apparently he has merged facts about his own childhood with a completely wild made-up tale about murder and mayhem in a small town. Despite the 50 years between Jack's childhood and today, I think that he is a character that lots of kids, especially boys, could relate to. He's mischievous but not mean, with a self-deprecating voice that rings true. The fact of his ever-present nosebleeds and overprotective mother are things that would speak to any child who has ever been embarrassed by something over which they have very little control. Jack sneaks out of his house, plays with his dad's war mementos, and lies to his parents when he thinks they need to be lied to. He loves to play baseball, wants to learn to fly his father's plane, and uses binoculars to watch the drive in movies from his own yard. In short, he feels very much like an average kid who happens to get drawn into extraordinary circumstances.
Miss Volker, Jack's "employer", is a feisty old woman, bent on preserving the town and its history, dedicated to making sure that Mrs. Roosevelt's dream of a peaceful, fair world becomes a reality. She uses the obituaries she writes (which are honest to a fault, reputations be damned) to remind residents of Norvelt of the importance of their town, and about the values of fairness, equity, and tolerance that it was build on. She also writes the "on this day in history" column for the paper, and she is very careful to choose events that support the very ideals that Norvelt stands for. There are other examples of children and oldsters forming close relationships in children's literature (Opal and Miss Franny Block from Because of Winn Dixie come to mind), but while Miss Volker fulfills the role of mentor and guide to young Jack, she does so with a great deal more piss and vinegar than the average fictional 80 year old. Through her, Gantos (the author, not the character) shows the importance of knowing your history, for those that don't are doomed to repeat it.
The subject matter, while not graphic, does include murder and arson. Not to mention the Hell's Angels. I actually think that this book would make a great read aloud, because the language has a lovely flow, but if you don't think that your kids can handle hearing the word "hell" spoken aloud by their teacher, then I'd avoid it. I definitely this that it belongs in any classroom library for upper elementary or middle school, and I'd use it in guided reading, or even as part of a social studies unit.