Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal for his funny historical fiction Dead End in Norvelt in 2012. I always bump Newbery winners to the top of my reading pile because they’re a treat. Plus I love being reminded of what it’s like to be a kid. For me, this meant afternoons sitting in my dad’s backyard wrapped in a Disney quilt reading on the mulch patch in the center of his garden as if he couldn’t see me from the kitchen window.
Discovering Jack Gantos is a breath of fresh air because he doesn’t limit himself to child-appropriate topics and his characters are brutally honest in the way only kids can be. It’s not surprising that young Jack’s, the hero of the Norvelt books, best friend lives in a funeral parlor and his other close buddy, Ms. Volker, is a prickly old obituary columnist. A preoccupation with death, adventure and history give these books a technicolor feel.
And seriously, how can you resist this cover?
From Norvelt to Nowhere is a follow up story, but it also stands complete on its own if for some reason you can’t find Dead End in Norvelt.
Ms. Volker, the oldest resident in Novelt, has finally fulfilled her promise of taking care of the town’s original residents. It was a promise made to the town’s founder Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, after the events of the first book in which a certain someone poisoned almost all of Norvelt’s elderly residents, Volker has a new purpose. She plans to impose/harpoon her own brand of justice on the old lady murderer, who’s still on the loose. On top of vigilantism, she also needs to pay her respects and write the obituary for Mrs. Roosevelt.
As Ms. Volker suffers from severe arthritis, she’s in no condition to carry out these missions on her own. So of course she enlists Jack. She’s already taught him to drive a car and he can just about see over the steering wheel so what could possibly go wrong?
Before he knows it, Jack finds himself on a train from Pennsylvania to visit Mrs. Roosevelt’s grave in upstate New York. His mother told him to do exactly what Ms. Volker asks of him though aiding her in hunting down and shooting the old lady murderer was probably not what his mom had in mind. He’s determined to stop Ms. Volker from committing the crime, but he’s also got to shake the two detectives on their trail. Plus his gushing nose bleeds are back.
Volker’s tutoring veers from Mrs. Roosevelt’s social programs to Bonny and Clyde and the Jekyl and Hyde sides of Lincoln. Her lessons come round again and again to how people change their mind to do what’s right, or not. The plot of who really murdered Norvelt’s little old ladies thickens as they discover that their culprit’s guilt is not as certain as they first believed.
This is a trains, automobile and plane journey up and down the east coast. It’s a read aloud wild ride with a little chaos and a lot of history – Volker is an encyclopedia. On paper, the plot may not sound like a heart warming kids story, but it’s written with so much humor and heart that it works.
This is a good choice when you’re in the mood for something light. Gantos commits to the silliness and you just have to go with it to enjoy the story. I loved the fast pace view from a child’s eye of an open road adventure with high stakes. If you read this with a child, be warned that Moby Dick may be the next book on their to-read (or read-to-me) list.
If you like this book, I highly recommend his memoir Hole In My Life. His YA book The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs wasn’t my favorite, but it’s another a dark comedy to check out if you’re hungry for more.