Dead End in Norvelt


Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

This historical slice-of-life novel by Jack Gantos is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and written for kids ages 10 to 14 years old. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Eleven-year-old Jack Gantos lives with his mom and dad in Norvelt, Pa. When the government created the town in the 1930s to help the poor, its namesake, Eleanor Roosevelt, made sure residents had homes that allowed them to live with dignity. But the town has changed over the years. Now, it’s 1962. Nearly all of the original residents are dead or dying. Only a few people, such as Jack’s mother and their elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, remember the town’s thriving community feel or its historical underpinnings.

Jack is happy in Norvelt and looking forward to enjoying summer break. Then Dad buys an old warplane, wants to rebuild it and needs a landing strip. Directly defying Mom’s orders, Dad tells Jack to mow down the cornfield. Jack obeys Dad, and Mom grounds Jack for the summer. Though Jack is rarely allowed to leave the house after his grounding, he gains some freedom when Mom loans him out to Miss Volker. Miss Volker’s hands are stiff and arthritic, so she dictates her flowery, historically embellished obituaries for the newspaper and Jack types them. Since Miss Volker is also the coroner, she has Jack drive her around town to examine the bodies of the newly dead.

While Jack is fascinated by the numerous war movies of the day, the reality of death all around him often causes anxiety. His stress manifests itself in frequent nosebleeds, which Miss Volker manages to alleviate with cauterization. Besides his obituaries and autopsies with Miss Volker, Jack sees and hears sometimes-gruesome details about death from his friend Bunny, whose father runs the funeral home.

The number of deaths in Norvelt suddenly increases at an alarming rate. Most of the dead are original members of the Norvelt community. There is one anomaly, when a Hell’s Angel literally dances into town and drops dead. His gang returns to the town to set fires and cause havoc, and some residents believe a Hell’s Angels curse is causing the increase in the death rate. Others, like the newspaper’s editor, suspect foul play and begin pointing fingers at Miss Volker.

As Jack drives Miss Volker around and helps her record information about the lives of the departed, the two become friends. Besides trying to instill in Jack the importance of history, she explains she has another critical mission to fulfill. She promised Eleanor Roosevelt that she would remain in Norvelt and keep track of the town’s history until every last original resident was gone. A suitor of Miss Volker’s, Mr. Spizz, eventually admits to poisoning the remaining original Norveltians. He thought if Miss Volker fulfilled her promise to Eleanor Roosevelt, she would be free to run off with him. Miss Volker is flattered but refuses, and Mr. Spizz quickly skips town.

Jack goes for a ride in his father’s plane, against his mother’s will. Although Dad enjoys dropping balloons filled with red paint on those attending war films at the drive-in, Jack stops when he sees how much this frightens the people below. He begins to take some of Miss Volker’s history lessons to heart and decides not to let his historical mistakes repeat themselves. He doesn’t want stupid, reckless behavior to be part of his future.

Christian Beliefs

An American soldier in a movie holds a prayer book and looks toward heaven. Jack calls this a sure Hollywood sign that the man is about to get a bullet through a vital organ. The soldier makes the sign of the Cross just before he dies. When an old lady wakes from a deep sleep, Jack likens her to Lazarus rising from the dead. Jack’s family attends the Church of Christ. One Sunday morning, his parents allow him to drive Miss Volker to her Catholic church. As Miss Volker writes obituaries, she prays for those who have died. Jack wonders why the church in England didn’t share land with starving countrymen and why conquistadors thought it was OK with God for them to kill the Incas and take their gold.

Anticipating a confrontation with Dad, Jack wishes he had a Bible so he could be on his knees reading it and looking angelic when Dad entered the room. Instead, he puts the biography of Jesus of Nazareth on his lap. He tries to distract Dad by asking why there’s no good information available on the boyhood of Jesus. He says all that’s known is that Jesus didn’t have to study because God funneled all of His preaching knowledge directly into Jesus’ brain. Dad wishes he could cram some knowledge directly into Jack’s brain. Jack says that would take a religious miracle, and Dad reminds him he didn’t come here to talk about Jesus.

While sitting at Miss Volker’s church, Jack ponders how real life is like doing a math problem, with one plus one equaling two. But church has a different kind of math. You couldn’t ever be certain how things would add up, so using your imagination is as important as listening to the preacher’s words. Jack says you have to allow images to blossom and come to life. He imagines heaven looks like images he’s seen of ancient Rome. You could never go the wrong way on the streets because what we do in heaven is always right. The sky is robin’s egg blue, and people drift along. The only food is bread, many different shapes and forms. Houses are made of it, and there is never a last supper because every night while you sleep, your bread house is made fresh. He says for him, heaven is everything good he can imagine. The reward for living a pure life is a great loaf of warm bread.

Other Belief Systems

Once, when Jack’s nose starts to bleed, he feels it is a bad omen. Some of the townspeople are convinced the Hell’s Angels have put a curse on Norvelt. When Jack helps arthritic Miss Volker write her name, he says it’s like they are receiving the letters from a Ouija board. Miss Volker says you have to love yourself, for there is no greater love than self-love. The Hell’s Angel who dies in Norvelt has tattoos of snakes, devil tails and the number 666. In his obituary, Miss Volker accuses him of having Devil-worshiping ways. She writes that a dancing plague in Germany came from an evil spell cast by the Devil, the original Hell’s Angel. Miss Volker says God has nothing to do with winning or losing a war. She says there are over 4,000 religions, so it is impossible to claim that one God is more powerful than another. Mom warns Jack to be mindful of what he says about the dead, as they can hear you from heaven.

Authority Roles

Jack’s dad makes him mow down Mom’s cornfield — though Mom has forbidden it — so Dad can have a landing strip for the plane he’s rebuilt. His action gets Jack grounded for the summer. Dad takes Jack up in the plane — against Mom’s wishes — and bombs those at a drive-in war movie with balloons filled with red paint.

Jack’s mom longs for a renewal of community in Norvelt. She regularly feeds the elderly and loans out Jack to Miss Volker for chores and other help. Miss Volker teaches Jack responsibility and gives him opportunities to get out of the house and learn interesting facts about history. She becomes a good friend to him. Mr. Spizz uses his authority as a law officer to issue tickets and receive favors. He kills the old people in town in hopes that Miss Volker will marry him.

Profanity & Violence

Jack and his friend, Bunny, often use the terms Oh cheeze, cheeze-us or cheeze-us-crust to avoid cursing. Mom says she wishes Jack would stop the fake cursing, since it’s as rude as the real thing. Bunny exclaims, “Holy underwear in heaven.” Words like d–n, gosh, butt and dang, along with the Lord’s name, are used a few times. Dad tells Jack there’s no farting while hunting deer because it will alert the animals to your presence. Jack purposely passes gas to save a deer’s life. To work himself into gas-passing mode, he thinks of a primitive tribe called the Hairy Ainus People.

The book frequently mentions blood, largely because Jack often gets gushing bloody noses. Blood runs down his face and stains most of his shirts. Miss Volker tries to fix his nose by cauterizing it. Jack mentions several historical stories in which people die bloody deaths, such as Cortes fighting the Aztecs. Bunny shares some unsettling images and stories about the dead bodies in her father’s funeral home.

Sexual Content

Jack kisses his mom. He kisses Miss Volker on the forehead after she’s fallen asleep. Jack says a man talking to him scratches a part of his body that makes Jack look away.

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • What role does history play in this story?
  • Why is it so important to Miss Volker to enlighten Jack and the citizens of Norvelt about the past?
  • Why is it important for you to learn history?

  • How well do Jack’s parents get along and work together as a team? Explain your answer.

  • Who are the male role models in Jack’s life?

  • What kind of example do they set for him?
  • How and through whom does Jack learn what it means to become a man?

  • What happens to Jack when he experiences anxiety or stress?

  • How do you handle things that frighten or unsettle you?

  • What role does death play in this story?

  • How does Jack feel about war movies vs. his dad’s bomb shelter, the dead bodies at the funeral home, etc.?
  • How do you feel when you think about death?
  • What does the Bible say we can hope for after death?
  • How did Jack envision heaven?
  • How would you describe heaven?

Additional Comments

Alcohol: Dad drinks beer. On their hunting trip, Dad and Jack see a group of hunters drunk on whiskey. Dad tells Jack never to drink before driving and using guns. The Hell’s Angel who died in Norvelt was seen drinking a beer shortly before his demise.

Smoking: Bunny smokes a cigarette. Jack says no wonder her growth is stunted. He tells her to put it out so they won’t start a fire.

Lying: Jack lies to his mom, saying Dad lets him play with his war souvenirs if he’s careful. He also tells her a movie he’s watching isn’t a war film. He recognizes that one lie always leads to another. He lies to his mom about being asleep in his room when, actually, he wasn’t in his room. He says that like any lie, the fewer details you give, the better. Jack asks if he can go up in the plane with his dad when Mom isn’t looking — even though she’s already said no and Dad knows it. Dad complies.

Racial issues: The Japanese are often referred to as “Japs.”

Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book’s inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email