Dead End in Norvelt won both the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The book is classified as “semi-autobiographical” in that it is about a 12-year-old character named Jack Gantos who lives in the southwest Pennsylvania town of Norvelt, written by author Jack Gantos who grew up in Norvelt, Pa. The story is so fantastical, it’s impossible for the reader to differentiate fact from fiction. Only Gantos knows for certain.
Set in 1960, school has just let out and young Jack is excited about summer vacation. He’s a rather impulsive kid who finds himself in hot water often and spends the majority of the summer grounded and confined to his bedroom. His mother lets him out only when their neighbor, old arthritic Miss Volker, needs his assistance to type the town’s obituaries as she dictates. As more and more of the town’s elderly original residents die off at an alarming rate, Jack believes there’s more than death by natural causes lurking in the town and sets out to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, Jack’s parents are at odds with one another because his father wants to leave Norvelt and his mother can’t imagine leaving her hometown. Jack’s dad is re-building an old military airplane in his garage and is determined to get it flying, while insisting Jack dig a big hole in the backyard for a bomb shelter. Hell’s Angels ride into town and terrorize the residents after one of their own is killed in Norvelt. Jack’s best friend Bunny’s father is the town mortician and Jack can’t stand the sight of dead bodies. Mr. Spizz considers himself in charge of the town, rides around on a giant tricycle, and has romantic feelings for Miss Volker. Will Jack ever be un-grounded? Why are all the old folks dying? Who is the killer? And who is next on his list? Dead End in Norvelt is quirky, humorous, and fun to read. Highly recommended for those who enjoy middle grade fiction. Or should I say, semi-autobiographies.