Saturday 28 April 2012

119. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Published April 2012 Corgi (Random House)

From the publisher:
After being 'grounded for life', Jack is facing a summer of doing nothing. But who's got time to die of boredom when there are so many more interesting ways to die in this town? 

He might crash in his Dad's homemade plane, or catch the disease that makes you dance yourself to death, or fall foul of the motorcycle gang that wants to burn the town to the ground. Old people seem to be dying faster than Miss Walker can write their obituaries, and Jack is starting to worry that it might not just be the rats that are eating the rat poison . . .

Dead End is Jack Gantos's hilarious blend of the entirely true and the wildly fictional, from one of the most darkly amusing imaginations writing today.

I don't usually read reviews of books before I read them , but as this book won the Newbery Medal I already had.  What I found was a 50/50 spilt of people who loved it and hated it, often the way with award winners I think, so with an open mind,  I read it myself.

Firstly, Norvelt is a real place, see below for a brief outline taken from the website:
Originally called “Westmoreland Homesteads,” Norvelt was established on April 13, 1934, by the federal government as part of a New Deal homestead project.  With 250 homes, Norvelt provided housing, work, and a community environment to unemployed workers and their families during the Great Depression.  It was renamed “Norvelt” in 1937 in honor of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her interest in the project.

The book is set in 1962, many years after the town was first established, and only a small number of the original families are still alive.  One of them being Miss Volker, who is the town medical examiner as well as the obituary writer for the local paper.  With her hands crippled with arthritis, she seeks the help of John for the duration of his summer break.  He writes out and types up her obituary notices, drives her around town (illegally, John has only just turned 12)

If this punishment isn't enough he has his 'nose problem'.  Jack gets severe nosebleeds if he is stressed, and this can include getting into trouble (which happens a lot), if he lies (which happens sometimes) and seeing a dead person (this happened once), but Miss Volker may have a cure for that.  

The book is full of crazy characters, Mr Spizz who rides around town on a giant three wheeler, the above mentioned Miss Volker who regularly cooks her hands in paraffin, Jack's best friend Bunny, who isn't scared of anything, especially dead people as her Dad is the undertaker, and then there's Jack's own father who comes home with an ex army training plane and plans to build a runway in the back field.

All the while, throughout the story Jack reads about history, as Miss Volker is not paying him with money, but with books, and Jack is eager to learn.  This makes for an added extra to the somewhat wacky storyline.  Thrown in with all of the funny happenings are a lot of historic facts, admittedly mostly American history, but interesting none the less. 

I think that this is an interesting book because it mixes almost Andy Griffiths type humour with serious topics such as war, death and history.  So I think it would be a good book to hand over to a Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths reader who might be ready for something just a little different.

Who will like this book: Boys age 10+
Read it if you like: 

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