Small-town life has never been funnier than in Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt. The 11-year-old main character, who suffers from profuse nosebleeds, also happens to be named Jack Gantos. Jack is enduring the summer in his hometown of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, a model community created during the Great Depression and renamed to honor Eleanor Roosevelt. While not strictly autobiographical, the story’s gothic humor is classic Gantos.
The summer of 1962 should be carefree for Jack, but when he accidentally fires his father’s WWII Japanese rifle and mows down his mother’s corn to make way for the backyard runway his father is planning, he is permanently grounded. His only reprieve is helping his neighbor, Miss Volker, with her unique obituaries of the last of the original Norvelters. Suffering from severe arthritis, which even “cooking” her hands in paraffin wax can’t cure, Miss Volker enlists Jack as her scribe. In the process, the boy learns the importance of history, especially now that his economically depressed town is dying like the ancient Lost Worlds he’s been reading about while cooped up in this bedroom.
When a string of Norvelter old ladies start dying, there’s no time for anything but obituaries (not even sneaking out to play baseball with Bunny, who knows a million dead-people jokes since her father owns the local funeral home). The story takes on an air of mystery when it appears that several townsfolk could be responsible for the deaths. Maybe Jack could figure things out better if he weren’t also afraid of a group of Hells Angels bent on revenge for the death of a buddy; if he didn’t have to dig a fake bomb shelter as a ruse for his father’s runway; and if his nose would ever stop bleeding.
Sure, this boy’s life is over the top, but readers would expect nothing less from Jack Gantos (either one of them).