Dead End In Norvelt Summary

Jack Gantos

Dead End In Norvelt

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Dead End In Norvelt Summary

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Dead End in Norvelt is a 2011 novel written by American author Jack Gantos. The book, which is based in part on the author’s own childhood, follows the adventures of an 11-year-old boy named Jack, in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. The novel earned many critical accolades at the time of its publication. It won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 2012 and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in the same year. It was also a finalist for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

The year is 1962, about three decades after the town of Norvelt was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt; it was one of many small, New Deal towns designed to help low-income people. Jack Gantos lives in Norvelt with his parents. He is mostly an ordinary 11-year-old boy, but tends to get nosebleeds when he is nervous or stressed. At the beginning of the novel, he is grounded for the whole summer for firing his father’s Japanese sniper rifle at a drive-in movie screen, not realizing that the rifle was loaded.

The only time Jack is allowed out of the house is to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, write obituaries for the town paper. In each obituary they write, they link the life of the deceased to an event in history. Miss Volker was appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt to be the town’s medical examiner and chief nurse. She promised Eleanor that she would stay in Norvelt and keep records on the town’s original residents until the last one died. One of these residents, an old man named Mr. Spizz, aggressively courts her with chocolates but she rejects his advances. Jack learns that Mr. Spizz asked Miss Volker to marry him a long time ago, but she refused to do so until all of the original Norvelt residents had died.

At home, Jack is caught in a war between his parents. His father, a World War II veteran, purchased a small airplane for just $25 and wants to build a runway and bomb shelter on the family’s property. He orders Jack to mow his mother’s cornfield to make room for the shelter, which Jack does against his mother’s wishes. Jack’s mother harvests wild mushrooms from the field near the town dump and uses them to cook casseroles for the town’s elderly residents, which Mr. Spizz delivers on his tricycle. She also gets a job at a pants factory to earn extra money.

Miss Volker performs surgery on Jack’s nose to help cure his nosebleeds. Jack’s friend, a tomboy named Bunny whose father owns the town’s funeral parlor, tells Jack that a Hell’s Angel who came to town has just been crushed to death by a cement truck. Strangely, the man was seen dancing for miles down the road before being killed by the truck. Miss Volker had recently sold her sister’s house to the Hell’s Angel, who was planning to settle in Norvelt with the other members of his motorcycle gang. When his friends learn of his death, they believe that he was murdered, to prevent the gang from moving into the town. They steal his body from the funeral home and set local houses on fire. It is rumored that they placed a curse on the town in revenge.

Miss Volker puts rat poison on the chocolates that Mr. Spizz gave her and puts them in the basement to kill rats. A troubling development rocks the town when all of the town’s elderly residents suddenly begin to die at an alarming rate. Miss Volker is suspected of killing them, and is put on house arrest by the police when they discover the poisoned chocolates in her basement. Mr. Spizz is also a suspect, as is Jack’s mother, since most of the deceased residents were found with half-eaten casseroles. Jack does not know who is responsible for the murders, but he suspects that it has something to do with Girl Scout cookies.

Jack discovers that his Uncle Will was the one who loaded his father’s Japanese sniper rifle, in order to hunt deer, after he sees Will shoot a deer with the gun. Jack comforts the dying deer and writes an obituary for it. He gets a phone call from Mr. Spizz, who tells him that Miss Volker is tied up in her basement. Mr. Spizz confesses to killing the town’s residents so that Miss Volker would marry him. He says he has skipped town in Miss Volker’s car.

Jack’s father, who decides not to build the bomb shelter after all, picks him up from a baseball game in his airplane. The two fly over the drive-in movie theater and pelt it with water balloons filled with red paint. However, the prank makes Jack uncomfortable and he asks his father to take him back to the ground. The novel ends with Jack composing his own obituary, in which he writes that he will continue to get into trouble if he doesn’t remember his own history.

The main themes of the novel are memory, the past, death, change, and social class. The novel makes many references to significant moments in American history, including World War II, the bombing of Hiroshima, Japanese internment, and the New Deal era, and connects them to modern day events in the characters’ lives. The novel is also notable for its dark humor and portrait of life in small town of America. Finally, it is a coming-of-age story that chronicles Jack’s journey towards a better understanding of himself, his family, and his town’s history.