Jack is having the worst summer of his life. It's 1964, he's 11 years old and he's living in slowly dying Norvelt, Pennsylvania. His mother has grounded him for accidentally shooting off his father's World War II Japanese rifle and for mowing down her corn crop (the latter at his father's instigation). The only time he can leave his house is when his next-door neighbor, Miss Volker, calls him for help. She's the town historian and chief obituary writer, but her arthritis is so bad that she can't type or grip a pen anymore. Miss Volker wants Jack to take dictation for her obits and her "this day in history" columns, and then dash down to the Norvelt News with them.
At first Jack is horrified ... at his first encounter with the acerbic Miss Volker, he thinks she's boiling her hands off as she tries a paraffin heat treatment. But as they get to know one another, Jack realizes that his love of history reflects hers. Norvelt, Miss Volker tells him, was a town founded by (what we would now call) the working poor during the Great Depression with the support of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The town honored her in its name. Norvelt was founded on the idea of people banding together to help one another, but now its residents are fleeing in droves. There are just a few original Norvelt-ians left, and Miss Volker is determined to remember them, and the town in which they used to live.
Miss Norvelt's obituaries are deeply personal -- as is fitting since she knows the deceaseds really, really well. But the elderly Norvelt-ians seem to be dying at an accelerated rate. This, coupled with Jack's fear of death, the dead Hell's Angel, his constantly bleeding nose, visits to the mortuary, and the fact that his dad's making him dig a bomb shelter, mean it's not going to be the boring summer Jack thought it would be.
Those who like to read Gantos (or Gantos-Boy as one of the characters in this novel calls him) for the laughs or the grossology will find plenty of that here, but the part of the book that spoke to me was more sentimental. Norvelt is changing, and mostly not for the better. Miss Volker realizes it, but she's hanging on to what is good. Jack's dad sees it and wants to get out. Jack loves history and -- through Miss Volker -- understands that it can inform us about the present. He's torn between his parents -- his mom wants to stay, his dad has his eye on Florida.
Gantos serves as narrator. Five years ago I listened to one of his books, The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, which is the only book he's written that he hasn't narrated (I think). He couldn't narrate anyone else's books, because of a strong regional accent and limited voice acting skills, but he's just perfect here. His nasality, plus those western Pennsylvania vowels, fit so well with the Jack who is telling this story. He doesn't distinguish characters with voices, but his emotional readings are so genuine. Gantos has no difficulty getting inside the head and vocal patterns of a pre-adolescent boy. Fear, fascination, exasperation, stupidity and love are all completely clear in his narration. It's a pleasure to listen to him read.
The audiobook concludes with a insightful -- if poor recording quality -- interview with Gantos. He describes his love for his home town and the very real conflicts of his parents. He briefly explains his approach to writing -- starting with a nugget of an idea and seeing where it takes him. Jack also told of his affection for Eleanor Roosevelt; invited to the White House, he began to cry as he stood in front of Mrs. Roosevelt's portrait there. (His love of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of that image from the first Olivia book, where a picture of the late first lady hangs in that crazy pig's bedroom.)
This book bogged down a little bit for me in the middle, as I was wondering where we were headed, but Dead End in Norvelt ended perfectly. I think I knew what was going to happen to Miss Volker, but Gantos doesn't spell it out. Jack's summer just goes on. Life goes on.
[The (tiny -- click on it to make it bigger) map of Norvelt was retrieved from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's site on "subsistence homestead communities of the 1930s" linked above (on Norvelt).
[The portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt was taken around the time that Norvelt was founded. It is in the Library of Congress and is in the public domain. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Narrated by Jack Gantos
Macmillan Audio, 2011. 7:11