Too young to worry about a Dead End in Norvelt

Meet author Jack Gantos at a book signing at Inkwood Sept. 13 at 5 p.m.

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The prose is more than a little reminiscent of The Beaver of Leave It To Beaver fame, which ran about the same time as the story setting. It offers a reassuring innocence, an idealism that is lost on the adults, who are filled with acrimony and offer little hope for the future. Jack’s father is the only one who can justify cynicism. He is a World War II veteran jaded by his experiences. He is a bit whimsical, but haunted by his war experience, telling his son not to “ever go to war . . . the battle is never over inside you.” He is the only one who seems to recognize the real dead end of the title.


There are times when I think I would like to hunt down the person who developed the concept of “genre.” Find him and give him a good tongue lashing, but then maybe also thank him. Classifying a novel by genre forms a filter to help us decide if we want to read a book, but that may not really be a service to the reader as it is based on someone else’s opinion. The term, “young adult,” is an oxymoron. To me, a young adult is someone between the ages of 18 and 30; anyone older is an adult; anyone younger is a teenager. But that’s just my opinion; the opinion of the publisher’s is that the book is intended for the 10-14 year old range.


My opinion does not appear to be the same as that of the grand, mysterious council that pigeonholes books into genres either. Although Dead End in Norvelt is classified as a young adult novel, its social and cultural commentary may be lost on young adults. Gantos attempts to remedy that with history lessons embedded through young Jack’s reading, and in the history that is revealed through the obituaries. Young adults may still struggle with that, but that doesn’t make this a bad novel. On the contrary; the social and cultural commentary make this a novel that real adults will also enjoy. The sad part is that real adults are not likely to bother with it because of the “young adult” label.


Norvelt is an actual town in Pennsylvania, and author Gantos is accurate with its history, as he is with the history that young Jack enjoys reading. Naming the protagonist after yourself might imply some autobiographical leanings, and the author did live in the socialistic town, but the story is largely fiction. Gantos is an award-winning author of young adult fiction; that’s easily recognized in his new character. He leaves no loose ends; young Jack is wizened by his experiences and he is able to impart lessons in maturity to the adults. The real question is if the adults learned anything from young Jack.


An audio book of Jack Gantos reading is available at us.macmillan.com/deadendinnorvelt.

Conjure if you can, a time when there was no Facebook or Twitter, or even computers. A time with no cell phones, answering machines or cable TV. It’s difficult to imagine. Jack Gantos sets his new novel, Dead End in Norvelt ($15.99, Farrar, Straus Giroux) in such ancient and austere times. It’s billed as a young adult novel, but the only thing “young” about it are the eyes and voice of the protagonist. This is a tale of the corruption and greed of adulthood running headlong into the idealism of a 12 year old boy.

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Gantos names his protagonist after himself, and young Jack is looking forward to a summer of baseball, reading, and turning 12. Norvelt, founded during the Great Depression in a fit of socialistic idealism, is a dying town in Pennsylvania whose residents are primarily the widows of coal miners. Jack, a history buff, learns of the town’s history when his elderly, arthritic neighbor asks him to type (as in typewriter) the obituaries as the widows begin dying off.

Jack is at that age between charming child and terrible teenager; a kind of limbo if you will, not unlike the state of the country at the time. It’s the summer of 1962; John Glenn has just orbited the earth; the Cuban missile crisis is months away; JFK is still alive, and Vietnam is not yet a household word. It’s an insulated town frozen in an insulated time, not yet having to confront the turmoil that is just around the corner. All would be well if the old ladies would stop dropping dead. They are old though, and none are dying before their time, but it is a little strange. And then the Hells Angels show up, the vacant houses start burning down, and nothing will ever be the same.

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