Title: Dead End In Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Publication Info: Square Fish 2013
Plot: Norvelt is a small town in western Pennsylvania that has seen its best days, but the long time residents are too stubborn to let it die. With the arrival of summer, Norvelt resident Jack Gantos (the character, not the author) is hoping to spend it playing baseball and sneaking peeks at the war movies at the drive in theater. Jack’s plans are disrupted when his neighbor Ms. Volker requests his assistance typing up obituaries for the local paper. On top of that, his father ropes him into a scheme to construct a fallout shelter and airfield in their backyard. Throughout this strange summer, Jack learns a good deal about his hometown and its quirky residents.
My Take: Author Jack Gantos writes excellent realistic fiction (or perhaps historical fiction in this case, if you consider the early 1970’s history!) and has a talent for bringing the quirks of characters and locations to life. He also writes humor very well and I found myself laughing in many parts of this book. As I got deeper into the story, I began to wonder what was the point of it all. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but rather as a strength of the novel. Gantos captures the slow summer days and strangeness of a dying town in the early 70’s, something he could not do if he had a heavy agenda for his characters. I appreciated this book, but younger readers with shorter attention spans may find it a slog. Recommend this book to seasoned readers looking for some funny realistic fiction.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to his website, Gantos really grew up in Norvelt. In school, he was “in the Bluebird reading group, which he later found out was for the slow readers.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Annabelle is a 12 year old girl living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943. Betty is a new girl at school who jumps Annabelle on her way home one afternoon in the deep recess of Wolf Hollow, a low, dark place that runs between the school and Annabelle’s farm. Betty threatens to beat her with a stick and hurt her younger brothers if she tells anyone. The one witness to this cruelty is Toby, a local homeless man with a mysterious past who wanders the local woods. The tension culminates is a violent incident that turns the town against Toby and makes Annabelle realizes that she is the only person who can protect him.
My Take: This was a book that gripped me from the opening pages and then expanded into a conversation about larger themes. I appreciated that author Lauren Wolk takes no time in introducing the character of Betty Glengarry who immediately provides a source of danger and conflict. She’s a wonderful antagonist that fills the narrative with a tension that makes you want to continue reading. Later on, as we get to know the character of Toby, we are asked to make sense of a more complicated character: a man who is obviously troubled, perhaps dangerous, but also show signs of warmth and kindness. When we learn the source of Toby’s demons, we are hoping that the community will show wisdom and patience in how it treats with him. This is a wonderful book that will encourage readers to ask questions about the homeless, the mentally ill, PTSD, and the ambiguous consequences of deception. I can certainly understand why Wolf Hollow won a Newberry Honor earlier this year.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk has a new book out entitled Beyond The Bright Sea that is already creating some Newberry chatter for 2018.
The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less: Zach, Poppy, and Alice are friends that enjoy playing an imaginary game filled with pirates, mermaids, and treasure. One of the most important parts of the game is “The Queen,” an old porcelain doll that sits in Polly’s cupboard, whose real origins are unknown. As the kids are now 12, all 3 feel ambivalent about continuing to play this imaginary game in the face of criticism from their peers. Their determination is rekindled, however, when a ghost visits Polly in her dreams, claiming that she was killed, turned into the china doll, and now longs only to be buried properly in her grave. The 3 friends set out on a journey to bury the doll and put the ghost’s spirit to rest.
My Take: Doll Bones novel is really about coming of age, facing the challenges of growing up, and grieving the loss of childhood. Black captures the confusion and awkwardness of turning 12 and being unsure about what to leave behind as childish things. I appreciated that the characters were clearly from underprivileged or blue collar families and that Black does not drive the point home too finely. All 3 of the children have unsettled home lives, giving the reader the sense that the children’s quest is not just to bury the doll, but to help restore some sense of wholeness to their respective households. Finally, I liked that the setting is in the industrial area of western Pennsylvania. It lends context to the idea that these children really are journeying a through a blighted landscape.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Holly Black is also the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles. Find out more about her at her website.