Allison's Book Bag

Dead End to Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Posted on: October 24, 2014

The designation of Dead End to Norvelt by Jack Gantos as historical fiction feels like a misnomer. The plot is so outrageous, the characters are so idiosyncratic, and the humorous style so often draws upon exaggeration. How can this be historical fiction? Indeed, most of the time I suspect you won’t even think about or remember this categorization. Instead, you’ll just enjoy the romp.

The type of historical fiction with which I am most familiar involves an author researching a time period or person with minimal connection to them except that the subject is of interest. Some classic examples would be offerings from Scott O’Dell or Elizabeth George Spear. Of late, I have been reading a type of historical fiction which is new to me. It is one which involves an author drawing upon the setting of their own childhood to write a story which may rely more or less upon real events from their own life to weave a tale. My first introduction to this format came from Gary Schmidt. This approach also describes the Norvelt books, a fact that I didn’t know at the time that I purchased them.

One thing I’ve noticed about this approach is that while readers are given clues which establish the setting, rarely is the setting blatantly stated. In novels which follow a more traditional approach, the jacket flap, the forward, or the first chapter almost immediately list the year in which events occur. Moreover, because the story often happens in an unfamiliar, remote, or faraway place, you instantly know it’s not your average realistic novel. In contrast, Dead End to Norvelt starts out with a young boy doing average stuff in an average American backyard at the start of what seems to be an average summer. No date is listed. Unless you count the main character’s obsession with war toys and movies, the first solid clue to the historical setting is a reference to John Glenn having orbited the earth earlier that winter. If you’re unfamiliar with space travel history, it might take you a few more references to historical people and events to figure out that the time is the 1960’s.

Why have I spent two paragraphs writing about this new approach? Because I am trying to figure out what I think about it. To be honest, I tend to get slightly taken back when several pages into a novel, I realize that the setting is different from what I expected. At the same time, I suspect the approach makes historical fiction more palpable. Not everyone likes historical fiction. And so this approach, which is a mix of autobiography and history and fiction, is akin to adding sugar to medicine. It may also allow authors more liberty to tell that story that they most desire to tell. The 1960s might help create the backdrop to Dead End to Norvelt, but the story of Jack being grounded, helping ailing neighbors, and developing an appreciation for his dying town is universal.

I’d be remiss if I ended my review without discussing what actually makes Dead End to Norvelt such a fun read. The plot could spiral into a boring fest of historical stories. Except Miss Volker always spices up the obituaries she writes with details that no one else takes the time to seek out. Moreover, those obituaries attract the attention of Hell’s Angels who are bent on revenge in the town. And, when those obituaries became a daily occurrence, it becomes apparent that murder is afoot. Jack could come off as a typical boy who doesn’t think enough about his actions. Except he has this quirk of getting nose bleeds whenever the least little thing startles him. And not just little ones. As a result, he never has any clean clothes. He also has this sympathetic blend of acting cowardly but wanting desperately to be a nice guy. And, finally, the style could slow the story to a snail’s pace. Or, just as bad, the style could feel so over the top that it wears one out. Gantos won me over with Jack’s sometimes awkward, sometimes mature, and always realistic adolescent narration.

Dead End to Norvelt is full of wisdom, heart, and laughs. It also has the “WOW” factor. In other words, besides being well-written, everything about Dead End to Norvelt pulls you into its pages and keeps you there until done. And, even days later, characters and incidents still come to memory. Dead End to Norvelt is a beautiful tribute to small towns everywhere, along with being an incredibly entertaining story.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


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