Novel Thoughts: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Children across the globe are familiar with the summer doldrums that inevitably set in once the initial rush of vacation has worn off, and Jack Gantos is no different. In his book, Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos relates a story of his youth in a creative way that is both relevant and relatable to children today.

Gantos’ tale is semiautobiographical in nature, and the writing contains no pretension that every written word in the story is true, an admirable quality in a book of biography or autobiography. The author creatively weaves throughout the story both real elements of his life and fictional conversations and reactions regarding the events that take place in the story. He also places heavy emphasis on the importance of asking why things happened with regards to history. The protagonist is a very curious boy, but he never allows himself to take the things he reads or hears at face value. For children, the delineation of that which is true and that which is fiction is an important lesson to learn for the future, and Gantos successfully brings that lesson to the attention of the reader without being heavy-handed.

The setting of the story, both physically and temporally, is an important facet of the story, and Gantos helps his reader to situate (her)himself in that setting without stating the pertinent information outright. Readers are given clues as to the time period and the location throughout the first pages of the book, and it is only then that they are able to piece together that most basic element of the story. This technique will keep reluctant readers motivated to get through the first ten percent of the book by which time they will be thoroughly enthralled.

While the parents in the book do bicker with each other, it becomes evident towards the end of the book that they have settled into their marriage and the paces through which they must be put. At one point, Jack’s mother is concerned that her actions may have been a contributing factor to the main conflict of the story, and she worries that she will “never be able to grow old” with Jack’s father. The family dynamic in the book is one with which many readers today will be familiar, as Jack’s dad is a war veteran who served in the Pacific. Although the war has been over for some time, its effects are still visible in the behavior of Jack’s father. He is absent a lot of the time, and Jack seems reluctantly concerned with his reaction to Jack’s behavior. He knows that his dad is an authority figure, and he wants to please him and gain his approval. But Jack seems to know throughout his adventures that the source of parenting and guidance he seeks, whether consciously or not, will come from his mother. His relationship with his father is distant and tenuous at best, and at the end of the story, readers come to understand just how different the two of them are from each other. The children of today’s veterans will encounter a protagonist here in whom they may see themselves in terms of familial relationships.

As the 2012 Newbery Medal winner, Gantos’ book Dead End in Norvelt encapsulates a relatable and familiar experience for children in a way that seems more realistic because of its autobiographical elements. The lesson to be learned by the end of the novel is both clear and relevant, and getting to that point of understanding will be a delight for both the child and the adult reader.

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