Audio Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt
History, mystery, and unexpected laughs in one small town summer
My kids and I listen to a lot of audio books, and not just when we take road trips. Because we’ve always got a story going in the car, we probably get through about 30 unabridged books a year. We listen in bite-sized pieces on our way to baseball games, grocery stores, post offices, and dentist appointments.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been immersed in the semi-autobiographical Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s geared for kids aged 9-12, but good for all ages.
It’s 1962 and Jacky Gantos can’t wait for summer. His plans go down in flames when his mother catches him playing with (and accidentally firing) his father’s souvenir WWII Japanese rifle.
His mother grounds him for life, and loans him out to an elderly neighbor who needs help for the summer. He winds up getting a crash course in history, journalism, and mortality.
Stricken with arthritis, the stern and spunky Miss Volker (a former nurse and obsessive devotee of the New Deal principles of Eleanor Roosevelt) dictates obituaries to Jack for publication in Norvelt’s small town newspaper. While his town’s present swirls with bomb shelters, arson, and irate Hell’s Angels, Jack gets a fascinating dose of the past.
Sound a little confusing and off-kilter? It is, but delightfully so. Like the best memoirs of childhood, it manages to make you nostalgic for a time you never lived it.
Also? The characters just shine. There’s the acerbic adult tricycle-riding Mr. Spizz, Jack’s tough talking best friend Bunny (who’s father owns the town funeral parlor), and his ideologically mismatched parents who skirmish about everything. Lots of the humor is lost on kids, but so what? You have to listen to this stuff too, so you might as well enjoy it.
You could read the print version of this book, but then you would miss out on Jack Gantos’s wonderful deadpan delivery of this absurd story. That would be a shame.