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?