Film buffs know that if you only watch Academy Award winners you're going to miss a lot of great movies and have to sit through quite a few bad ones. The same holds true for children's literature and the Newbery Awards—some great books have made the list, but a lot of substandard fiction has been chosen over the years.
If you're thinking a good review is one that doesn't play its hand till the end, then you can be sure this isn't a good review. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos isn't one of the great ones. Not only is it Leftist propaganda (never a surprise with the Newberys), it's poorly written, not very funny, and more or less completely unbelievable.
Well, you say, it's fiction; does it have to be believable? Because Gantos bills this as an autobiographical novel detailing two months of summer vacation in Norvelt, PA, we expect it to be. Like real life, there isn't a whole lot of plot here, but instead of making up for the lack of story with fascinating characters, Gantos gives us miserable eccentrics who aren't nearly eccentric enough to make them fun to read about. They're just run-of-the-mill eccentrics, like a funeral home director who heads the kids baseball team.
Gantos works pretty hard (it seems) to churn out laughs, but mostly they fall flat. His writing is scarcely more than perfunctory, laying out dialogue, characterizations, and descriptions with a kind of hum-de-ho attitude that leaves the impression he doesn't really care about writing, only about being a writer.
Then there's the propaganda. Norvelt is a real Pennsylvania town commissioned by FDR's New Deal that was designed to operate along more or less socialist lines. Through the character of the elderly Miss Volker, we're routinely bludgeoned with homages to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in setting up Norvelt, as well as other Liberal folk heroes.
Here's what passes for the book's plot: Jack fires his dad's WWII Japanese rifle taken from the hands of a dead Japanese soldier, is grounded for the summer, and in pennance must help Miss Volker write her obituary/history column for the town newspaper since she's lost the use of her hands. Other stuff happens, from frequent bloody noses (Jack has some kind of undiagnosed disorder that makes his nose bleed when he's frightened or surprised) to underage driving to a meeting with the Hells Angels.
Miss Volker's obituaries are the most interesting part of Dead End in Norvelt, but also the most frustrating. Every time someone dies (and it's usually an old person; there's a murder mystery here, too), Miss Volker writes an extensive obituary, and ties the events of the deceased's life to people and events in the past.
Not a bad literary device, but Gantos uses it to promote everyone from Susan B. Anthony (which is fine), Wat Tyler (who was a Medieval rebel), and Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (which is really, really bad). Gantos/Volker presents Berkman and Goldman as humanitarian heroes; in reality, they were atheistic anarchists who embraced eugenics, free love, radical feminism, the abolition of religion, etc.
Besides the blatant propaganda, Gantos is irreverent and focuses on things that will shock his readers. Jack's dad makes him destroy his mother's cherished corn crop, Jack frequently uses the expletive "cheeze-us-crust", his best friend Bunny likes to scare him to make his nose bleed, no one is nice or kind, and Jack's parents encourage him to lie.
If this was for adults it would make more sense. But it's not, it's for kids, and unlike most Newbery books it doesn't even have the redeeming virtue of literary merit—Gantos writes the way a typewriter would write if it was given a mind of its own, blandly and mechanically. And while ad hominem arguments are generally a bad idea, we'd like to end by pointing out that Jack Gantos once did 18 months in prison for drug-smuggling. Unhappy reading!
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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