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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt, written by Jack Gantos. Farrar Straus Giroux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2011. $17.95 ages 12 and up

"Yep, I was even thinking of starting a museum right here in Norvelt..." Mr. Fenton trailed off as he scratched a part of his body that made me look away.
If it was a museum of human freaks, I thought, he could be the first display. He looked like a human corn grub with crusty wire-rimmed glasses over his bugged-out snow-globe eyes."

Oh, this was such fun to read, and it took me no time at all! I just wanted to know more and more about Jack, his mother and father, the town of Norvelt (which is as much a character as anyone else) and Miss Volker.

It is the summer of 1962 and things have not started well for Jackie Gantos. Taking direction from his father, he plows up his mother's corn patch and finds himself grounded for the summer when she takes great exception to his actions. He finds himself completing numerous mother-suggested tasks, including acting as a scribe for MissVolker who writes obituaries for the town's newspaper, as well as a 'today in history' column. Miss Volker has severe arthritis and has great difficulty using her hands for anything, so she needs Jack's able assistance. They are kept very busy as so many of their town's elderly citizens are dying within quick succession of each other.

Spending time together puts Jack on Miss Volker's radar; it doesn't take her long to notice his constant nosebleeds. His nose bleeds when he is upset, name it, the nose will be bleeding. She is adamant that she can fix his problem, and cauterizes his nasal passages in her home. Kids who love to squirm will find reason to do so. Miss Volker has nothing if not opinions. She emphasizes the importance of the history lessons that she is sharing:

 "The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

She has so much to teach, and Jack is quite fascinated. He finds himself enjoying the time they spend together...and why not? She is one great character. They have more than a love of history in common. Their encounters add drama and humor at every turn:

"Yes, she said, "I'm human and I have fingers. They don't work well because of my arthritis so I have to heat them up in a pot of hot paraffin in order to get them working for about fifteen minutes."
"Hot what?"
"Hot wax," she repeated impatiently. "You saw me doing it when you came in. Did that smack on your head when you hit the floor give you amnesia?"
I sat up and rubbed the lump on the back of my head. "I thought you were melting your fingers into gold," I said. "I thought you had gone crazy."

And that's only a small part of one scene! I would have a tough time reading it to a class without giggling uncontrollably at times, and even crying tears and snorting at the impeccably written hilarity.Jack stands at the heart of this fine novel, and he learns much about the person he wants to become. As the summer comes to an end, he more readily understands some of the actions taken by those around him.

There is such great writing here that I will put it on my 'keeper' shelf in hopes of reading it again. I added many wonderful lines to my book quotes journal, and only hope I might remember them to share at opportune times. Bravo, Jack Gantos...and thank you!

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