Dead End in Norvelt

July 22, 2017
Dead End in Norvelt Book Cover Dead End in Norvelt
Norvelt, #1
Jack Gantos
Historical Fiction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 13th, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt is the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year's best contribution to children's literature and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction!

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. 

But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a feisty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his Utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launched on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder.

Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.


This semi-autobiographical novel is billed as one which melds the “entirely true” and the “wildly fictional”. As the 2012 Newbery Medal recipient, I don’t know what I expected– but it sure wasn’t this. I adored moments of this story, but overall I couldn’t connect to the characters or the themes. While I can respect this novel, and I even understand why it won, it’s definitely not my cup of tea.

“Don’t ever forget your history,” she sang, “or any wicked soul can lie to you and get away with it.”

Norvelt, PA is a real town developed as part of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which allotted money for the creation of homestead communities for dislocated industrial workers. This planned, cooperative town gave families the opportunity to become economically independent by working the land and bartering for goods and services. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1937 as the first homesteaders were arriving. She was personally invested in this program as she thought it would help prevent similar disasters in the future. That disaster? The Great Depression. So moved by her visit and support, the town was named after her: EleaNOR RooseVELT.

Our story begins in 1962 Norvelt just as school is ending and Jack Gantos is about to begin the summer he has long awaited. Unfortunately, Jack immediately gets grounded for the entire summer. Our adventures are seemingly going to be bleak, as Jack is only permitted to leave the house to visit his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Volker when she needs help. And so begins a collection of misadventures as Jack helps Mrs. Volker write obituaries for all the original Norvelt citizens dying all Summer long, encounters Hells Angels with revenge on their mind, learns the history of Norvelt and major events around the world, and tries to manage relationships with both family and friends.

Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors. 

I really struggled with the relationships in this book. Yes, this is from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy watching the adults of his town interact. But there are quite a few problematic things for me, particularly in how adults interact with children. For example, Jack’s father is constantly putting Jack in situations where he must choose between his parents. It’s obvious that there is something wrong with his parent’s relationship, but poor young Jack is too blind to see both his parents are pitting him against the other in this strange collection of power plays. Jack is also threatened, blackmailed, and coerced by other adult citizens of Norvelt as well. It’s like everyone is completely out for themselves and only puts up with Jack as a means to an end. It was both disgusting and infuriating. In fact, Jack’s treatment by adults, their messed up relationships, and the complete lack of any semblance of normality in how anyone interacted was a constant distraction in my reading.

The only real positive relationship Jack has all summer is with Mrs. Volker. A sweet lady who is set in her ways, Mrs. Volker treats Jack just like she would any other human being. It’s obvious that she doesn’t care if he is 11 or 55. Jack is helping her and helping is what Norvelt is all about. Mrs. Volker is the wit and moral in this novel. She was charged by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to care for the original town’s inhabitants. And that she is doing! Mrs. Volker takes her job seriously and teaches Jack the importance of history, standing up for what you believe in, and sticking to your word. She is the entire reason Jack grows at all in this novel, and in my opinion, the only remotely worthwhile character to be invested in.

…but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories.

There are a lot of reasons I can see why this book was nominated for and won, the Newbery. First, Dead End in Norvelt tells the story of a single summer. Jack’s life isn’t fancy or special or magical– it’s real. And this series of misadventures, while absurd, is certainly something young boys can envision themselves participating in, I’m sure. Jack is also a relatable character. He’s a sweet, genuine boy who is always trying to do the right thing. But often, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place and makes a choice he knows won’t end well. It just so happens to be the best possible choice he has. And finally, this book teaches a number of important lessons. About why telling the truth is important, how adults can make mistakes too, the importance of caring for your community, how assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me, how knowing your history is essential to learning lessons and success in life, and how history can be biased by whoever tells it but it is still an important lesson to learn.

Despite all these great things, Dead End in Norvelt just wasn’t for me.  I didn’t find that I was rooting for a single character. They weren’t unlikeable, but they weren’t likeable either. The humor also didn’t resonate with me. I knew there were places I was supposed to laugh, but I never found myself laughing along. The series of events occurring in Norvelt was unbelievable to me, too. Yes, I know this story is based on real life events. So, perhaps all of these things really did happen to author Jack Gantos over the course of his summers. But… the entire collection of moments felt like a farce with no real moral or lesson behind it. I ended up closing this book wondering if I had just completely wasted my time.

Don’t ever go to war. Even if you win, the battle is never over inside you.

On my quest to read all the Newbery award winners, this won’t be at the top. But, at least I can see why the Newbery committee selected Dead End in Norvelt, even if I don’t agree with their decision. Strongly recommended to all 8-13-year-old boys who are feeling a bit trapped and lost, or who don’t understand the importance of history.

What do you think?

  • Have you read Dead End in Norvelt? What do you think?
  • Have you read any Newbery Award winners? Which are your favorites?
  • Are there award winning books you just don’t like or don’t understand how they could have won? What books are those?


  • KrystiYAandWine July 23, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Oh, bummer. So sorry to hear you didn’t love this one. Usually Newberry Award winners are more engrossing reads. It’s hard to engage with a book when you can’t connect with the characters though, so I totally understand that. I haven’t picked this one up just yet.

    • Jackie B July 26, 2017 at 10:30 am

      Exactly! I’m on a quest to read all the Newbery winners, and I was shocked at how disappointed I was in this novel. I’ve found that I can enjoy books where the characters are unlikable but I always struggle when I cannot relate. I think this book has some valuable things for younger kids, though. I can certainly understand why it would be considered a winner!

      • KrystiYAandWine July 26, 2017 at 9:17 pm

        That’s such a great goal. I would love to do that. I just don’t know if my TBR is ever going to let me. LOL. My life is being run by my TBR at the moment. That’s great that you can see the reasons why it would have won even if it wasn’t really for you.

        • Jackie B July 27, 2017 at 8:40 am

          Haha– I completely understand. My TBR rules my life, for sure. I really need to learn how to get it under control… But yes, this goal about reading all the Newbery Award winners is because the 100th anniversary of the Newbery is in 2022. And that’s coming up fast! I hope to get all the Newbery winners read by then and do a series of posts celebrating the 100th anniversary. Talk about future planning! Whew.

          • KrystiYAandWine July 27, 2017 at 10:20 pm

            I keep saying that, and overtime I try to make it more manageable, it seems that I make it worse. LOL. I hope you have better luck with it than I am! It’s so crazy to think that 2022 is coming up fast, but it’s true! And how neat that they’ve been doing that prize for almost 100 years! That is phenomenal TBR planning, lady! You need to keep me updated on your progress. I’m rooting for you!

  • Laila@BigReadingLife July 24, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Too bad! I’ve read a few Newberry winners and some very good ones are The Westing Game (one of my all-time favorite books) by Raskin, The Crossover by Alexander, and The Graveyard Book by Gaiman.

    • Jackie B July 26, 2017 at 10:32 am

      I have read both The Westing Game and The Graveyard Book and I loved them both. I haven’t read The Crossover yet, however. I’ll move that up my TBR! In my experience thus far, I’ve really loved reading the Newbery Award winners. But, sometimes I enjoy the honor books more! To each their own, I guess. 😀

  • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer July 27, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    It’s odd that there was only one positive relationship, normally there is an effort made to show how we do t realize they are positive or they aren’t positive now… Newberry is hit or miss for me… I read Wednesday Wars and it wasn’t for me… great post Jackie! It’s hard when you get where they were going intellectually but not emotionally! ♥️

    • Jackie B July 31, 2017 at 4:31 pm

      I have read so many Newbery books which I adored, I never considered that they might be hit or miss for me, honestly! But that’s something I’m coming to know. Any other Newbery books you’ve read and loved?

      Thanks for the kudos, Dani. 😀

      • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer July 31, 2017 at 8:23 pm

        The Girl who Drank the Moon was pretty good! LOVED Mrs. Frisby and the rats of Nimh. The Hero and the Crown was inspiring to me as a young reader (fantasy!) Holes was pretty good and there is a movie! I’ve always wanted to read one of the Dr. Dolittle books (I think one is on the list!)

        • Jackie B August 4, 2017 at 11:44 am

          I’ve read a few of what you’ve mentioned– The Hero and the Crown I haven’t read yet, though! I will have to get on that. And yes, there is a Dr. Doolittle book on the list! I was obsessed with the Rex Harrison musical as a child; I really should read that book.

  • Grab the Lapels July 31, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    The #1 thing I learned after going to college for creative writing is that just because it happened does not mean it makes good fiction. It’s important in a writing workshop for the author of the story to remain silent, otherwise he/she likes to claim that whatever the audience doesn’t like was based on some truth, so we “have” to like it. No, we don’t. Get an imagination, author. I’m not surprised the adults are so awful during this time period, though. Children seem more like commodities (servants) or nuisances in this era.

    • Jackie B August 4, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Thank you for sharing! That’s not something I ever would have considered (perhaps I should go to some writing workshops to learn more about understanding what I’m reading?), but it makes complete sense. I think it was even more challenging since I was listening to the audiobook as narrated by the author. That made for an interesting switch too.

      Do you know of some other books where children are treated like commodities? I’d be interested to compare.

      • Grab the Lapels August 4, 2017 at 11:59 am

        Pretty much anything in the Victorian era, books set in Puritan communities, anything before child labor laws. I can send you a crazy short story written about 7 years ago about a baby as a commodity, which completely backfires.

  • theorangutanlibrarian August 1, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Ah I get what you mean about just not connecting with this- I’ve read a few things lately where I kinda get why other people like it but personally couldn’t relate. Shame it wasn’t for you- and I get what you mean about struggling to connect because of the parenting aspect- great review though!

    • Jackie B August 3, 2017 at 12:40 pm

      Thanks! It’s always a bit frustrating when you understand where things are going and the benefit, but it just don’t quite mesh well. Silly.

  • hannahpotamus August 8, 2017 at 2:00 am

    I always automatically assume that all Newberry Award winners will blow my mind away, but obviously not every book is for everyone. 😀

    This book has been sitting on my shelf for forever– I think I picked it up just because I’d been hearing so much praise regarding it– and I’ve been debating for a long time whether I should start reading??

    Anyways, what a great, thought-out review!

    • Jackie B August 10, 2017 at 9:17 am

      I used to assume that as well. But I’m also glad that this broke those rosy glasses covering my eyes. Not every book is for everyone, but that doesn’t lessen the greatness of this book for those audiences! I would love to hear your feedback if you ever get to reading this, Hannah! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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