Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

"He turned and walked out of the room to prepare for his trip.  I stood up and closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed feeling very different from myself. Maybe I felt like a city before it was invaded.  Or a ship before it sank.  Or happiness before it turned into sadness.  I couldn't say exactly.  But something was about to change in me." 

I've never had the privilege of seeing Jack Gantos speak in person, but a colleague of mine has, and when I asked her about the experience the first thing she said was  "He's not an ordinary person."  Gantos, the author of the Rotten Ralph books for young readers, the extraordinary prison memoir Hole In My Life, and the Joey Pigza chapter book series about a boy going through school and life with ADHD,  has built a distinguished career  writing about people and situations that are at least a little off-beat.  I have no problem believing that he's not an ordinary person.  What I didn't realize up until now was how unusual his life circumstances have been, as well.  For instance, remember his teen book Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, about the sixty-something siblings whose love for their mother was so obsessive that upon her death they taxidermied her body and kept it in their home?  I thought Gantos had been watching Psycho a few too many times,  but it turns out that that's a true story.  The Rumbaughs are maternal relatives of Gantos, and they actually did taxidermy their dead Mom.   No wonder his tone has at times been referred to as "gothic".

But there's so much more depth to Gantos as a writer than his quirky appreciation for the the outliers of society.  He's a man of intelligence and intellectual passion, and of long-practiced observation, and of humour.  His strengths are all on display in his latest middle-school book, Dead End In Norvelt, which is largely based on events in his own childhood.

Jack grew up in the historic town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a model community created during the Depression by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idealistic presence in this book looms large.  Roosevelt (after whom the town is named) planned Novelt and similar communities to be self-sufficient, running on a barter system rather than cash, with large lots for people to grow food for their families. His mother makes sure she raises enough corn each year to share with the town elderly.  But by the time Jack is born, the principles the community was founded on have begun to erode.

"'Why'd you offer him fruit and pickles?' I asked, and looked up at her face which didn't look so bright and cheery. 'Doctors cost money.'
'You shouldn't be embarrassed,' Mom said, knowing that I was.  'Money can mean a lot of different things.  When I was a kid we traded for everything.  Nobody had any cash.  If you wanted your house built, you helped someone build theirs, and then they would turn around and help you build yours. It was the same with everything.  I'd give you eggs and you'd pay me in milk.'
'I don't think it works that way now,' I remarked.  'If he fixed my nose I don't think he'd want me to do brain surgery on him.'"

In the spirit of neighbour helping neighbour, Jack's mother farms him out one summer to assist Miss Volker, the elderly town nurse, who is now too arthritic to write obituaries (which she sees as a "final medical report" for the dying original town inhabitants).  Miss Volker's obituaries are amazingly detailed and personal, and deliberately stuffed with both local and world history. Gradually, as Jack and Miss Volker share a number of unlikely and sometimes hilarious adventures, her passion for history and its importance starts making a lot of sense to Jack, as well as to us.

Here's the snappy publisher-produced book trailer:

And here, courtesy of the Library of Congress, is a rather long but informative talk by Gantos about his career in general and Dead End In Norvelt in particular.  

I'll leave you with an endorsement by Jon Scieszka, uber-famous writer, founder of the Guys Read foundation, and the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature:

"Nobody can tell a story like Jack Gantos can.  And this is a story like no other.  It's funny.  It's thoughtful.  It's history. It's weird.  But you don't need me to attempt to describe it.  Get in there and start reading Gantos."

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