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).



Newbery Winner 2012

Scott O’Dell Award 2012



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. Accessed via CLCD

Publishers Weekly.  Publishers Weekly. Accessed via CLCD


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