Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. ISBN 9780374379933

 

If you are anything like me, when you first start Dead End in Norvelt, you will cruse along with Jack for about four chapters, when you are suddenly told his last name is “Gantos,” at which point, you might, like me, flip to the cover and check the author’s name.  Yes, Jack Gantos wrote a story where his main character is named “Jack Gantos.”  That’s not confusing.

However, once you get past the autobiographical nature, Gantos sucks you into a murder mystery, an adventure story, a coming-of-age tale, and (clearly) a historical fiction.

Jack Gantos (the character) is messing around with his father’s Japanese war memorabilia and decides to pretend to shoot the drive-in screen he has been watching through the binoculars.  When the rifle actually fires, the whole story is set up.  His mother, first concerned by his nosebleed problem seeing as he bleeds anytime he feels any extreme emotion, grounds him for the summer except for loaning him out to work for Ms. Volker, the Norvelt medical examiner and author of all of the obituaries in town.

Jack reads his way through every history book he comes across.  Despite his mother insisting that bartering is perfectly acceptable, Jack notices that history is all about who has the gold.  However, his history lessons do not end there.  Ms. Volker includes a history lesson in every obituary she writes.  While her connections between those that have died and the history lesson are usually strained, her comments about history itself are sound.

“‘History is a form of nature, like the mountains and sea and sky.  History began when the universe began with a ‘Big Bang,’ which is one reason why most people think history has to be about a big event like a catastrophe or a moment of divine creation, but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the the library of human memories.'”

While history is one of the main topics in Dead End in Norvelt, it is by no means the only thing driving the story.  Ms. Volker swore that she would write the obituaries and pronounce dead every original Norvelter.  When the old ladies, Ms. Volker stated once that they were all hanging on to life, suddenly begin dying in rapid succession, people begin to wonder if is old age or something more sinister.  As if that wasn’t enough for Jack, a group of Hells Angels begins terrorizing Norvelt when one of their own is killed by a truck in town.  Jack finds himself on the outs with his best friend, the short and fearless undertaker’s daughter Bunny, and with his mother, he mowed down her corn on his dad’s orders.

Surprisingly, Jack’s father is the voice of America in 1962.  He is suspicious (he believes everyone in town is Communist), wild (he won a plane gambling and decided to make a runway in the backyard), and obsessed with moving on (primarily to Florida, which seems to be where everyone who isn’t content in Norvelt wants to go).

Jack Gantos is a fun, zany read.  While there are times when, as a reader, you feel just as trapped as Jack because nothing seems to happen, the book never completely loses its momentum.  Especially if the library is in a small town, it would be fun to find out the history of the town (such as the story of how Norvelt was named).

 

Awards:

Newbery Winner 2012

Scott O’Dell Award 2012

 

Reviews:

Kirkus-“An exhilarating summer marked by death, gore and fire sparks deep thoughts in a small-town lad not uncoincidentally named ”Jack Gantos.”… Ultimately, the obits and the many Landmark Books that Jack reads (this is 1962) in his hours of confinement all combine in his head to broaden his perspective about both history in general and the slow decline his own town is experiencing.”

 

Publishers Weekly-” Like the author, Jackie lives for a time in Norvelt, a real Pennsylvania town created during the Great Depression and based on the socialist idea of community farming. Presumably (hopefully?) the truth mostly ends there, because Jackie’s summer of 1962 begins badly: plagued by frequent and explosive nosebleeds, Jackie is assigned to take dictation for the arthritic obituary writer, Miss Volker, and kept alarmingly busy by elderly residents dying in rapid succession.”

 

Kirkus. 2011.  Kirkus Reviews. v.78.no.8. Accessed via CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=1&isbn=9780374379933

Publishers Weekly.  Publishers Weekly. Accessed via CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=1&isbn=9780374379933

 

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The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Schmidt, Gary D.. 2007. The Wednesday Wars. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 9780618724833

 

Despite the humorous chalk drawing on the cover, The Wednesday Wars, is not about a seventh-grade boy who hates Shakespeare.  In fact, Holling Hoodhood discovers he likes Shakespeare almost as much as he likes Treasure Island.  Instead, it is a novel that shows history through the eyes of a young teen.  Kids (for the sake of this post, teens are also kids) don’t usually worry about the big picture.  To Holling, teachers, like Mrs. Baker, are just teachers.  They were born as teachers.  It is the little things that drive their world and, inadvertently, make them aware of the world around them.  For example, when Mickey Mantle refused to sign Holling’s ball because Holling was still in his yellow tights from playing the part of Ariel in The Tempest, one of Holling’s gods died.  The following paragraph from page 93 is an example of what I mean by the little things inadvertently expanding a child’s world:

“When gods die, they die hard. It’s not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep.  They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned.  It hurts more than anything you can talk about.  And maybe worse of all is, you’re not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place.  You don’t want fire to go out inside you twice.”

Despite the fact that this first person narrative can be confusing, for example, the reader does not immediately learn Holling’s first name (or his sister’s until the very end), it is a fun read.  While at first glance, The Wednesday Wars is plot driven, it doesn’t take long to realize the quiet drive behind all of the children, Mrs. Baker, and Mrs. Bigio.  Holling’s parents are the direct contrast.  They are unchanged throughout the course of the novel.  The first time you meet Mr. Hoodhood, he is concerned with how his son’s relationships with anyone will affect the family architectural firm.  You know because his family will not attend Holling’s premiere on stage because Bing Crosby’s Christmas special is on, that they will not turn up at his cross-country race.  Holling, however, goes from being the boy who will inherit Hoodhood and Associates because it is expected, to the boy who makes his own decisions, such as cashing in his savings bond so he can wire money to Minneapolis, where his sister is stranded.

To an adult, the setting of 1967 is easily apparent.  From Walter Cronkite’s reports from Vietnam to the Volkswagen with flowers on it, Schmidt leaves sings of the time everywhere.  However, even to a seventh-grader, 1967 is as foreign as a fantasy world (especially depending on how far they have actually gotten in US History).  That being said, there are familiar landmarks.  Coke, despite the bottle, and baseball are the same.  Seventh-graders still dread Shakespeare.  Valentine’s Day is confusing.  Siblings are still important, even when they are being jerks.

Mrs. Baker makes the comment to Holling that,

“‘People like to think that if they’re prepared, then nothing bad can really happen.  And perhaps we practice because we feel as if there’s nothing else we can do, because sometimes it feels as if life is governed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.'”

These two sentences seem to sum up the feeling of the time.

 

Awards:

Newbery Honor 2008

Cibil Award 2007

Cuffies: Children’s Booksellers Choose Their Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Books of the Year, 2007: Winner Best Novel for Young Readers That Adults Would Love if They Knew About It United States

 

Reviews:

BookList-“Seamlessly, he knits together the story’s themes: the cultural uproar of the ’60s, the internal uproar of early adolescence, and the timeless wisdom of Shakespeare’s words. Holling’s unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open.”

Publisher’s Weekly-“Schmidt…delivers another winner here, convincingly evoking 1960s Long Island, with Walter Cronkite’s nightly updates about Vietnam as the soundtrack. The serious issues are leavened with ample humor, and the supporting cast—especially the wise and wonderful Mrs. Baker—is fully dimensional. Best of all is the hero, who shows himself to be more of a man than his authoritarian father. Unlike most Vietnam stories, this one ends happily, as Schmidt rewards the good guys with victories that, if not entirely true to the period, deeply satisfy”

 

Engberg, Gillian. 2007. BookList. v.103, no.19. Accessed via CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=2&isbn=9780618724833

Publishers Weekly. Accessed vie CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=2&isbn=9780618724833

Storyteller by Patricia Reilly Giff

Giff, Patricia Reilly. 2010. Storyteller. Wendy Lamb Books. ISBN 9780375838880

 

In the twenty-first century, Elizabeth is sometimes clumsy and often forgetful.  She acts without thinking.  What she does think, is that she doesn’t want to go to her aunt Libby’s for a few weeks while her father shows and sells his carvings in Australia.

In the eighteenth century, Zee is sometimes clumsy and often forgetful.  Her father accuses her of acting without thinking.  What she knows, is that war is coming and her peaceful life is changing.

Giff weaves these two girls’ stories together masterfully.  Oftentimes, key phrases that are used to describe one girl will be used in the next section to describe the other.  Elizabeth’s story is a mystery.  She is learning the story of her mother’s family.  She is learning stories are what she is good at.  She may forget her key, or accidentally break a picture, but she can remember the pieces of stories that her aunt Libby and Libby’s cousin Harry tell.  Zee learns that even after losing almost everything, she refuses to lose her land.  That strength, that refusal to lose what is most important, is what she is good at.

 

Giff paints an accurate, if simplified, view of life in Revolutionary America.  None of Zee’s actions are without consequences.  When Zee allows the sheep to stray before calling for help, she ends up losing two lambs to the snow.  When she spills fat for soap, she is unable to make soap with her mother.  When she realizes that she has worked the land, gathered herbs, and made it her home, she realizes she cannot serve a foreign king.  Yet, for all of the accuracy, Zee is the biggest element of fiction in the novel.  While nothing she does (hiking through the wilderness with only stream-water and berries for food, miraculously finding her family, and following the army on foot) is impossible, it is all highly unlikely.  Yet, for all of that, it makes a good story.

 

If Zee is the action, Elizabeth is the heart.  While staying with her mother’s sister and learning about her many times great grandmother, seems a little cliche it allows the reader to not only synpathise with the lonly girl, but also to understand why she wants to know about the girl who not only looked like her, but also lost her mother.  That bing said, both Libby and Zee are far more dynamic characters than Elizabeth.  While she does find herself at the end, her change is small.  She wants to know her father’s story.

 

Like so many other novels about being your own person, this one is rooted in a mixture of the past and hope.  Elizabeth does not set out to find herself, or even to do what her father says and learn about her mother’s family.  That is what ends up happening, despite Elizabeth’s own reluctance, but the goal was to get through a few weeks with Aunt Libby and go home (which is also what happens).

 

While it was an enjoyable read, it was predictable.  Perhaps the most innovative thing about the whole book, is Elizabeth’s passiveness.  For once, the female character is not a spitfire, or a brat, or a scamp with attitude.  She is just a girl who wants to get by.

 

Awards:

NOMINEE New Hampshire Great Stone Face Children’s Book Master List
NOMINEE Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award
NOMINEE Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Award
NOMINEE New Jersey Garden State Children’s Book Award

 

Reviews:

Kirkus-“Readers will be intrigued by their similarities—klutzy and forgetful, yet strong-willed and resourceful. The more compelling drama is Zee’s, whose family is caught up in the conflict of colonists torn between loyalties to crown or American patriotism. History is truly in the small details, and Zee’s story, narrated in first person, past tense, is fascinating and adventurous.”

BookList-“The horror of war is clearly conveyed without graphic specifics, and the historical framework makes this a strong classroom choice.”

 

Kirkus. 2010. Kirkus Reviews. v.78, no.16. accessed via CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=11&isbn=978-0-375-83888-0

Rutan, Lynn. 2010. BookList. v.107, no.2. accessed via CLCD http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=11&isbn=978-0-375-83888-0

“Storyteller by Patricia Reilly Giff”. Random House. http://www.randomhouse.com/book/201842/storyteller-by-patricia-reilly-giff#awards