Usually, when the year’s Newbury-award-winning book is announced, I check to see whether I’ve read it or not, and add it to my mental “to read” list if I haven’t. I will note that a mental list is very good for avoiding stress and guilt for not keeping up with the reading, but not so good at actually getting the books read. This year, I put the Newbury and Caldecott books on hold right away, and am currently listening to one of the Odyssey books (for best childrens audio) with the boy. (The actual winner of the Odyssey, Rotters is all about corpse robbing, and therefore not for me.)
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s 1962 in Norvelt, a Pennsylvania town founded as a self-sufficient homestead community by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Depression. Now, in 1962, the original residents are slowly dying off – all women, as the men died of black lung from working in the mines much earlier.When I first started this book, about a boy named Jack Gantos growing up in the same town as author Jack Gantos, I was prepared for another thoughtful and moving but ultimately somewhat boring book about growing up in a slow, long-ago time. The start felt a tad slow to me, as young Jack gets in trouble for accidentally firing a Japanese WWII rifle that he hadn’t thought was loaded at the local drive-in screen. One of his major entertainments seems to watching war movies from his yard using binoculars. Maybe not boring for boys, but boring for me. The tension ramps up for Jack as his father orders him to mow down his mother’s treasured field of corn for feeding the poor, with the upshot that Jack is grounded for the summer. His big project is digging a bomb shelter and a runway for the old fighter plane his father is trying to fix up. This plane and destruction building the runway causes are symptomatic of the tension between Jack’s mother, who was born in Norvelt and loves it, and his father, who wasn’t and who considers it a dead-end town to be escaped. The only time Jack is allowed to leave the house is to help one of the original residents, the former town nurse, Miss Volker, type obituaries of the others as they pass, as Miss Volker is too arthritic to do so. Long ago, she promised to marry Mr. Spizz, the tricycle-riding town sheriff, when all of these ladies were dead, and he never lets her forget it. Additional color comes from the nosebleeds Jack gets whenever he is frightened, from his best friend Bunny, a fierce Small Person who is the daughter of the local mortician, and the unexpected death by truck of a strange Hells Angel. All of these elements weave together into a story that has lots of over-the-top gross humor combined with nostalgia and sorrow at the ending of a utopia as well as good old-fashioned kid fun. Spoiler – the old ladies turn out to be dying of unnatural causes, and somehow, this is mostly treated as something to laugh at. This treatment makes the book lighter for the grade-school readers it’s aimed at, but I still found the casualness the murders were treated with a little horrifying. For those who can get past this, this book has enough excitement to pull a reader in as well as enough meat to leave the reader with something to think about.