Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011.
What was the Newbery Committee thinking? I wanted to like this book, no… I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be so fantastic that I instantly understood how it won the Newbery Award over Gary Schmidt’s incredible novel, Okay for Now. I will even admit that I found the book amusing at times. I know readers will find Jack and the wacky characters who fill his life in 1960s Norvelt, a government-sponsored social experiment in western Pennsylvania, funny and will enjoy the read. However, an award-winning novel for children or adults should be more than amusing. It should have a universal, worthwhile theme and dynamic characters who grow and change from their experiences, and these two elements should be fairly apparent for its intended audience to perceive. And this is precisely where this historical fiction falters.
Gantos’ child-self is surrounded by a kind, idealistic mother; a restless, sometimes immature father; an elderly neighbor who conveniently invents and embellishes history; and more. While the characters are well-rounded, only Jack, the young protagonist, can be called dynamic. He at least learns to appreciate history and develops empathy for others. No one else seems to learn anything at all from their experiences. I found the old Three Dog Night hit “Easy to Be Hard” running through my mind often as I read this slyly ironic tale:
“Easy to be hard. Easy to be cold.
Especially people who care about strangers,
Who care about evil and social injustice.
Do they only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?”
More mature readers may recognize the irony in Norvelt… Jack’s mother fiercely espouses the commune-like social justice tenets upon which the town was built, yet unfairly punishes her son for obeying his father; several elderly women are murdered, yet there is no anger, no outrage, and no resolution to the crime, just a statement that authorities would probably catch up with the culprit before long; and Miss Volker talks about the importance of history but doesn’t hesitate to fabricate it. Gantos’ social injustice theme is revealed through these and other small ironies, but it was all so casual and offhand that most of his audience will totally miss it.
Additionally, every young reader I talked with thought the events in the book were true. Why? Because the author, in using himself as the protagonist and his childhood home as the setting, deliberately gives readers the impression that the novel is a memoir. Further, he provides no author note or informative sources to help sort the real from the imagined. This does a disservice to readers. His tone is light and humorous, the plot is fast-paced and amusing with a hint of mystery, and readers will enjoy it. But Newbery worthy? Like I said, what was the committee thinking?(less)