By Amber Hancock
“Then she reached toward me with her deformed stumps and touched my face and at that moment I yelped out loud and dropped over dead…” (Gantos 26)
The unexpected is Jack Gantos’s specialty. Whether it is the mischievous Ralph the cat from the Rotten Ralph book series or the “wired” Joey Pigza from the Joey Pigza quartet, his characters never behave the way one might think they will. And the events … well, like my opening excerpt, they are startling, laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking at the same time. Dead End in Norvelt takes Jack Gantos’s usual elements – almost fantastical events, unforgettable characters, and a unique sense of humour- to the next level; this is autobiographical fiction with a murder mystery chaser.
Layered with historical references, both personal and otherwise, this is a story about how twelve-year-old Jack Gantos survived being grounded for the summer. To escape becoming a complete hermit, he agrees to be the hands of his elderly and arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker. She is a woman with a mission – to chronicle the ends of all the Original Norvelters- before she too can rest. In return, she shows him through her obituaries the hidden story of his hometown – a tale of community spirit, a house wallpapered in letters and even ultimately, murder. For Jack, this summer might just be the most exciting- and integral- of his life.
This novel is intended for older middle school to high school aged readers, and is almost written episodically. The chapters focus on particular moments of Jack’s summer, yet they remain interconnected through similar themes and a sense of progression. Each event is an accumulation of the encounters that came before and a contribution to the incidents that will follow. Because of this, there is a strong sense of timeline which facilitates Jack’s prevailing epiphanies – the power and influence of learning, the cyclical nature of history, and the unavoidability of death – within the text.
According to his website, Jack Gantos The Official Website, the real Jack Gantos is no stranger to his Imaginary Jack’s epiphanies (http://www.jackgantos.com). Born in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, he spent his early years in Norvelt before moving to Barbados at age seven ad finally ending up in Southern Florida. His family life was not what most would consider normal, and it shows in his rather morbid sense of humour. In describing his parents, Mr. Gantos says, “My mother was community-minded and socialistic and would have stayed in Norvelt, and my father was more ambitiously capitalistic and eager to make a fortune beyond Norvelt” (Jules). According to TeachingBooks.net, one of the most fantastic of his life stories, which can be found in his book entitled Jack’s New Power, begins with his one-year old brother being gassed to sleep by their babysitter and ends with his mother turning herself in for murder. With tales like that, it is not surprising that the undercurrent of his work runs dark.
Like the anecdotes in Jack’s New Power and Dead End in Norvelt, there is a stream of the autobiographical flowing throughout his work, and this can be attributed to the author’s love of journaling. According to the autobiography attached to his website, “The seeds for Jack’s writing career were planted in sixth grade, when he read his sister’s diary and decided he could write better than she could” (http://www.jackgantos.com/bio-photos/ ). To date, Jack Gantos claims to have filled more than 200 journals (TeachingBooks.net), and they remain great fodder for his work. Of his writing process, Mr. Gantos says, “I don’t go back to them [his journals] unless I’m really searching for something specific…Then I will go back and pull out [for example] my third grade and fourth journals, re-read them, pull out the good stuff, the little nuggets” (TeachingBooks.net). It is this feel of the real – of the experienced- which gives his books their memorable and relatable quality.
One of the most admirable qualities of Jack Gantos’s writing career is the diversity of his texts. As his website claims, his readers can read him “cradle to grave” (http://www.jackgantos.com/bio-photos/ ). From his Rotten Ralph picture book series to middle school aged Joey Pigza quartet to the adult The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, Jack prides himself on never being “pidgeonholed” into one type of fiction. Indeed, when asked about his range, he states emphatically:
I have that range, and I really am very protective of the right to have a range. I don’t like being pigeonholed as just a picture book author, or just a chapter book author. I’m a writer. And as such I can write anything … that’s really what my job is. Not just to do the same thing over and over. There would be no challenge in it for me. Being a writer, being an artist, means you have to challenge yourself with each project. And so I give myself plenty of range to do this challenge (TeachingBooks.net).
This range also leads to his works having a layered quality. Dead End in Norvelt, for me, is not just about what the young Jack Gantos learned one summer, but about the history – the history of his family, the town and even the world – that leads to his realizations. For others, the novel might be about something completely different. The layered nature of the narrative was intentional, and for the author Jack Gantos, it is the most important part. Gantos states that he structures his books so that the “… surfaces are rich and sort of seamless. But [he'll] also make sure that there are little holes, little peepholes in that surface that when you get real close, he’ll] take you right on in, and then you’ll see the inner workings of everything” (Teachingbooks.net). In Dead End in Norvelt, these “peepholes” are mostly found within the interactions between Miss Volker and Jack.
“…people may die but we’ve got some important ideas to keep alive” (32).
At his roots, Jack is simply the typical boy. Excepting his nose bleeds and regrettable, accidental shooting incidents, he just wants to play baseball and hang out with friends. When he dresses for Halloween, he does not choose an obscure reference as his costume; instead, he wears one of the holiday’s staples: the Grim Reaper. He’s an every-boy with quirks. That being said, Jack is presented to us as a deep thinker with a strong interest in history, and it is this quality that connects him to the other characters, especially Miss Volker. After he transcribes the first obituary they work on together, he is not disappointed when he is paid in “brain food” (37) or books of history because he likes the material. Before even meeting Miss Volker, the readers are told that Jack loves to read about ancient history in the “Landmark history series,” and he wonders what it would be like to be a part of that story (15). Would the destruction of the Incas have been different if Jack had told them what guns were? The answer, of course, is yes, but it is this action of thinking about the past and hindsight’s reflections which embodies his later connection to Miss Volker.
She literally is a piece of history; this is not only because she actually existed as a part of the author’s past in Norvelt (http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2165), but also as a piece of story’s past. She is an essential part of the Norvelt timeline as its chronicler; she has been instructed in duty by Eleanor Roosevelt; she watched as the town changed as it grew; and she recorded its history. She has lived through events about which Jack can only read. Yes, her behavior can sometimes be viewed as erratic and even a little mad. Kitchen table nose cauterizations can give that impression; however, like the past, her actions can be explained in context. Many historical events, if isolated, can be viewed as insane or unreasonable; however, through an understanding of related events, perceptions, and social norms, the logic can become apparent. It is the same with Miss Volker. As Norvelt’s medical examiner and as a trained medical professional, she has the experience to perform the cauterization; as a writer of people’s history and a product of its journey, she can teach Jack to look beyond the surface. These facts flavor her madcap actions with the flair of rational explanation.
Moreover, as readers explore the obituaries that she and Jack have written, they can catch a glimpse of a global history of which the Norvelt timeline is only a representative. As Jack studies under Miss Volker, he learns to view history in broader and more unexpected ways. It is not simply a class in school or the subject of books; it is the tale of people and what influences them. Jack’s favorite article in the newspaper is also written by Miss Volker and is called “This Day in History.” It highlights the most important moments on an individual day in history. June 18, for example is the day that America declared war on Britain and when “Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for attempting to vote” (42). Though the article is interesting on its own, it is also illustrative of a larger principle. History is not made up of moments that are simply experienced once then forgotten forever. Instead, it is a dynamic museum in which the exhibits are in a state of constant change and growth. Houses that he has seen all his life have become showcases for stories. This is best exemplified by the house owned by Mrs. Hamsby, which is wallpapered with lost or forgotten letters. These “scraps of history” are only bits of stories, and their gaps can only be filled in by imagination (230). Thus, the same letter can be a part of infinite tales, and are as changeable as their historians.
In his position as her hands, Jack not only becomes an observer of historical moments (ie the deaths of the Original Norvelters) but also becomes a part of Norvelt’s history. Indeed, the relationship between Jack and Miss Volker functions much like the past and the future do in life. In the present, the past inspires the future and is the starting point of its progression. Here, in his novel, Jack Gantos the author employs the use of the classic trope of “passing the torch” to highlight the growth of Imaginary Jack Gantos’s character. In much the same way as Eleanor Roosevelt passed the duty of chronicler to Miss Volker, Miss Volker is preparing Jack to take her place. His job as her hands is the starting point of his individual progression as a writer, and with Miss Volker as his inspiration, he will be the guardian of “future history” (115). As a child, he will be part of the next group to influence the direction of the world. By remembering the lessons of the past, Jack will be ready to take on the challenges of the future; furthermore, like his mentor and the author himself, he will chronicle his experiences and prepare his readers for the history yet to come.
Jack Gantos is a master of the unexpected, and here in Dead End, he surprises us with his handling of history. As he broadens its definition and adds his personal touch, readers are left to wonder exactly where the autobiography ends and where the fiction begins. Is his relationship with the real Miss Volker the same as in the book or is this only the history that lives in his imagination? Only further study can tell; perhaps we may even uncover more clues in its sequel, From Norvelt to Nowhere.
“Jack Gantos Interview.” TeachingBooks.com. Website. November 2013.
Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), New York. 2011. Print.
Gantos, Jack. Jack Gantos the Official Website. http://www.jackgantos.com. Website. November 2013
Jules. Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blogspot. “2011 Interview with Jack Gantos.” Entry 2165. http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2165. 2011. Website. November 2013.