Dead End in Norvelt: A Book Review

Dead End in NorveltLately I have been stumbling upon a lot of Coming-of-Age novels whose stories are set somewhere in the United States. Over time,  I feel like I’m getting a better idea of what it must feel like to grow up there as compared to doing so in my own country.

The latest book I’ve just finished is titled Dead End in Norvelt and is an autobiographical novel by Jack Gantos. In it the author recalls a particular summer of his childhood in Norvelt, Pennsylvania.  It’s the 1960’s and the 12-year-old Jack isn’t looking forward to a summer-long grounding for accidentally shooting his father’s rifle (a Japanese souvenir from the war).  When the boy is given the opportunity to leave his “jail cell” in exchange for helping an elderly neighbor, he gladly accepts. Soon he finds out his task would be in the form of helping the lady write obituaries for the local paper. In addition, he is to be her chauffeur – as the neighbor suffers from arthritis and can do little on her own. For someone as young as Jack, a chauffeur position proves to be challenging:  

“I’ve only driven a tractor,” I said nervously. “I don’t know if I can really drive a car.” It’s the same,” she said. “Just go slow and it won’t matter if you hit anything.” “But what if I slowly drive off a cliff?” I asked.

Writing the obituaries, which the elderly lady dictates to him,  turns out not to be the boring chore he imagined it would be. To start, he sees the old Mrs. Volker “cook her hands”, and learns a lot about the people who founded his city.  He even embarks upon a secret mission to check on whether an elderly citizen, who hasn’t been seen for a while, is still among the living.  To do so he has to break  into her house (wearing his Halloween Grim Reaper  costume as  a disguise). Yet, as he is afraid of dead people, he makes sure to announce his appearance first:

“And if you are dead could you please come back to life because I’m really afraid of dead people.”

Yes dead people and death are among the motifs of the story, but death is a part of life and a part of each individual’s growing up experience (or maturation if you prefer). And the way Jack learns to deal with death, and the transformation of his feelings from being afraid of it to respecting it, can be of benefit to young readers and even those much older.

Dead End in Norvelt: Book Trailer

I loved the humor in the book – the jokes felt authentic — just as a 12-year-old would think of them. Jack’s innocence (and even naïvety) shines through his personality,which undoubtedly will charm the book’s readers. Jack loves reading and, as big chunk of my childhood is also associated with the adventurous worlds and knowledge and imagination only books can provide, it was not hard at all for me to associate with his character. That’s one of the primary reasons I read Coming-of-Age books to this day – to re-live my childhood days through the eyes of their protagonists. They may be imaginary feelings, but in Jack Gantos own words:

“It’s like when you read a book and you know that words are important, but the images blossoming in your imagination are even more important because it`s your mind that allows to come to life.”

Gantos’s writing style is intriguing — not overly simplistic or complicated — a style that makes his novels suitable for readers of all ages. Dead End in Norvelt is an easy read and interesting enough to keep you reading (I finished it in little less than three days). It’s not just about Jack, who’s adventures are sure to entertain you, but you’ll also enjoy the numerous interesting characters and community members that he encounters along the way.

As an Eastern European, I found Jack’s father’s fears of the Russians “coming to bomb America” or talk of the threat of the “commies” quite humorous as well. I know that in the 60’s such topics were hot among Americans, and somehow reading about them from today’s perspective one starts wondering how naïve societies can be.  

It’s funny how nostalgic a book about the childhood of an American boy got to me. Dead End in Norvelt is a novel that deserves to be discovered and enjoyed. Don’t miss it!