This is a semi- autobiographical historical fiction tale, with a little bit of mystery thrown in. It won the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the 2012 Newbery Medal. It’s set in the summer of 1962 in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Jack Gantos is 12 and has been grounded (partly because he’s caught between the conflicting wishes of his parents), but he’s allowed to help an elderly arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, to write her obituaries as the original settlers of Norvelt slowly die off.
Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? But Gantos combines fun fiction with (sometimes crazy) truths (according to the author), such as spending part of his childhood in Norvelt, Miss Volker’s character (not her real name), his childhood tendency for frequent nosebleeds that “spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames" (page 8), and a dad who had Japanese souvenirs from World War II and won a Piper J-3 Cub airplane in a poker game. This creates a book where, as he explains in a video interview included on one of the audiobook’s CDs, "one of the prime motivations…is this notion that history, our history, is so vastly important."
Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) is a real town with an interesting past. According to Miss Volker (page 214-215),
Jefferson believed that every American should have a house on a large enough piece of fertile property so that during hard times, when money was difficult to come by, a man and woman could always grow crops and have enough food to feed their family. Jefferson believed that the farmer was the key to America and that a well-run family farm was a model for a well-run government. Mrs. Roosevelt felt the same. And we in Norvelt keep that belief alive.
In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech (Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2012, page 45), Jack Gantos noted:
The "obit'" is a very tidy literary form and one that Dead End’s Miss Volker generously stretched to also include some meteoric moment in history that intersected with the life of the deceased in order to point out how, in life, we might feel like but a speck of dust on the planet but in truth we are all tied together in one massive hand-holding of humanity—for better or for worse.
These obituaries, Miss Volker’s “This Day in History” feature in the local newspaper, and Jack’s fondness for Landmark history series books, combined with the comedy and humor, reinforce the message that (as Miss Volker says, page 214), “if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking," and (as Jack realizes near the end of the book, page 340) “the reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."
I liked the end of this book (despite its surprise), and I feel it was deserving of the Newbery. Aimed at students from ages 10-14, grades 5-8, I think it will especially appeal to boys. I found myself wondering as I read it how my son would have reacted, 12-16 years ago.
The audiobook is fantastic! It made me laugh (and sometimes cry). Gantos is perfect as the narrator. His somewhat whiny voice fits a 12-year-old boy. In a Booklist interview, Gantos acknowledged boys’ frequent preference for male readers: “I think there is a sense that if a man is reading the book, then it is entirely cool to sit and listen to it. It’s a man-to-man relationship around a good story. Perhaps it’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a good tale.” The audiobook makes a good alternative for younger or struggling readers who might have difficulty with its fifth-to-sixth-grade reading level.
© Amanda Pape - 2012
[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]