Thursday, February 9, 2012

Something's Going on in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
If you have ever read the Joey Pigza books, you know Jack Gantos is a funny guy. He is the kind of  spazzy, funny-because-I-can't-help-myself funny that makes you crack up. In Dead End in Norvelt, he fictionalizes his own life story for even more goofy antics. 

Jack is grounded for mowing down his mother's corn field. He did it because his father made him do it, but nonetheless, he is grounded. His mother decides part of his punishment will be loaning him out to Ms. Volker, one of the few original residents of Norvelt. Ms. Volker writes the obituaries for the other original Norvelters and wants to be the last one to go, but her arthritis means she can no longer write. So Jack becomes her scribe. For a boy who is afraid of blood, whose nose gushes every time he is scared, and who always finds him in trouble, there is no more perfect partner-in-crime than Ms. Volker. 

A summer's worth of grounding should mean a pretty boring time for Jack, but when the old ladies start dropping like flies, he and Ms. Volker get pretty busy. Not to mention the Hells' Angels who burn a house down, Ms. Volker's creepy admirer who is the only adult alive who rides a giant tricycle, and Jack's father who is building a runway and putting back together a plane to fly around town. When the old ladies keep dropping like flies, though, people start to get suspicious. Is someone killing off the old ladies of Norvelt?

This book had moments where I found myself laughing out loud and other moments where I was honestly a little bored. I am actually very surprised to learn this book won the Newbery Award. I am not saying it was a horrible book, because it certainly isn't, but after reading Inside Out and Back Again and The Fault in Our Stars, I can't help but think there were better books out there that deserved this prestigious award more than this one. It was an interesting book and there were some funny things going on, but it was also a little morbid at times. For instance, Ms. Volker makes Jack clean up the rodent massacre in her basement when she poisons them with tons of rat poison on the chocolates her admirer brings her. And for some reason, everyone in the book seems to think these old ladies should just die already. They aren't all prepared to "do something about it", but they seem relieved when these perfectly fine little old ladies are bumped off one by one. Their deaths are just another thing to comment on like the changing weather. It was honestly both strange and highly depressing. 

What I did like about this book was the feel of a boy growing up during this time, decades ago, and doing things kids can't and won't do now- like help a little old lady. He drives her around town to run errands and even though he is just a kid with no license, no one bats an eyelash. It is an interesting contrast to the kinds of lives kids lead today where they can't just run around as they please in the summer. There really is no such thing anymore as playing in the neighborhood all day and just making sure you are home by dinner. I think this is a good book for any middle reader. The deaths aren't particularly gruesome (actually, they are barely questioned), but there are a lot of them. It isn't a hugely exciting or fast paced book, but it is interesting enough to hold the attention of middle readers. I just wish there had been more of the Jack Gantos goofiness I love so much!

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