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Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

As a bookseller and the official buyer for my store, I am spending more and more of my time reading new books. My personal taste tends to lean more heavily on the tomes of dead white guys. The books I used to spend my time reading are those that have a reputation spanning more than years - often they span decades or centuries, even millennia. So, one excitement that I am just beginning to experience is that of the first flush. Most of my reading now centers around new books tJJmmmmhat are garnering a lot of advance praise and buzz. One such book is Jack Gantos' "Dead End in Norvelt."

When Gantos won the Newberry award last week I was thrilled. I'd read, loved, and recommended this book since its publication last fall. I remember the buzz about it from last May at BEA months prior to its release. Gantos receiving his award felt like a bit of a coup for myself as well. I'm really a part of this whole process now. It's exciting. But you want to know about the book, right?

"Dead End in Norvelt" is the story of Jack Gantos by Jack Gantos, but it is only semi-autobiographical "melding the entirely true with the wildly fictional." Jack's story is about the summer he spent grounded during the early 1960s in the dying town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Norvelt is a real community established by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression to help struggling families get a leg up over poverty. The spirit of the town was that of a true community. Everyone would lend a hand. Each individual knew the importance of the part they played and was both honor and duty bound to their responsibilities to the town and each other. That's what Jack's mom loved about Norvelt. Norvelters helped each other. Norvelters cared.

The story is heavily doused in nostalgia. Even at the time the novel is taking place this spirit is dying out. The original Norvelters are all either moving on or passing on. That's where Jack's neighbor, Miss Volker, comes in. Miss Volker is one of the last original Norvelters. She's the town's nurse, historian, and obit writer. Part of Jack's punishment over the long and boring summer is to help Miss Volker by typing up her obituaries for the local paper. Her hands have become so arthritic that she can no longer perform simple tasks. It seems strange to say, but Miss Volkers hands may well be my favorite part of the novel. They're one of Hitchcock's MacGuffins, always edging the plot along and providing interesting fodder but never really meant as the center of anything. Plus at one point she cooks her own hands and Jack thinks she's cannibalizing her flesh - though she isn't, it is absolutely hysterical.

That's really the main thing about "Dead End in Norvelt" its sweetness and curiosity coupled with outright wonderful humor. If this book were a person, I might marry it. Maybe I should write a love letter to Jack Gantos? As a character, Jack as a young boy is fantastic. He's just starting to grow up, which is such a great time to read about, there are so many questions to ask and things to discover. By putting the characters of Jack and Miss Volker together (along with the divergent views and opinions of Jack's parents) Gantos gives us this look at life's spectrum that is truly rare and is executed with perfection on several reading levels.

I know I haven't told you much about the plot, but I feel like I don't need to. Suffice it to say there's plenty here to enjoy and I don't want to spoil it. Hell's Angels, possible cannibalism, loads of creepy and interesting history, poisoned Girl Scout cookies, and a grown man who rides a tricycle - I know you're gonna love it.

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