Dead End in Norvelt

Written by Jack Gantos
Review by Michaela MacColl

Jack Gantos is both author and hero in this novel set in 1962 in the town of Norvelt (named after its patron, Eleanor Roosevelt). Norvelt was founded in 1934 as a low-income community housing project. In the past 30 years, the town has declined. The original families are dying and younger townspeople have left. Jack, age 13, is looking forward to a summer of baseball and adventure when he is grounded and assigned to work with the original Norvelter, Miss Volker, town coroner, historian, and chief obituary writer. Jack discovers history through reading a collection of discarded library books and keeping company with Miss Volker. Throw in a sinister undertaker, a Hell’s Angel gang who curses the town, and a rash of mysterious deaths, and the summer becomes unexpectedly exciting for Jack (which is a problem, because his nose will gush blood at the least provocation).

Dead End in Norvelt can be very funny. Not surprisingly, Jack is funny and has a unique perspective. His relationship with his parents is particularly well drawn. His mother grew up in Norvelt and is holding on to its communal past, while his father is carting unused Norvelt houses to another thriving town. Miss Volker is a charming character, and it’s easy to see why Jack grows to like her. Jack’s peer relationships are sketchier, and tangential to the story. Constant historical delving works well as part of Miss Volker’s obituaries (every death is linked to that day in history), but less successfully as part of Jack’s musings about life. In the end, the history seemed to be outweighing the much more interesting story about a dying town and Jack Gantos trying to find his place in it.