Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
ISBN: 9780374379933
Pages: 341 pages
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux, c2011.

BLAM! The rifle fired off and violently kicked out of my grip. It flipped into the air before clattering down across the picnic table and sliding onto the ground. “Oh sweet cheeze-us!” I wailed, and dropped butt-first onto the table. “Ohhh! Cheeze-us-crust!” I didn’t know the rifle was loaded. I hadn’t put a shell in the chamber. My ears were ringing like air raid warnings. I tried to stand but was too dizzy and flopped over. “This is bad. This is bad,” I whispered over and over as I desperately gripped the tabletop.
“Jaaaack!” I heard my mother shriek and then the screen door slammed behind her.
“If I’m not already dead I soon will be,” I said to myself. (10-11)

After playing with his father’s war souvenirs when he wasn’t supposed to and mowing down his mother’s corn when his dad told him to, Jack gets grounded for the rest of the summer. Stuck in his house, the only time he’s allowed out is to either dig the bomb shelter his dad is intent on making, or help the neighbor Miss Volker. Helping Miss Volker doesn’t involve the usual things like painting the house or raking leaves. Instead, Jack drives the elderly medical examiner around and types the obituaries as she dictates them to him. The job is much easier than digging in the heat a hole the size of a swimming pool. But when the elderly residents start dying out one after another, suspicion is cast on Miss Volker. Is Jack unwittingly helping a murderer?

This book has garnered a lot of love over the past year, winning the Newbery Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction. Now I’m not saying that it’s a bad book by any means, but I’m not sure I can whole heartedly agree with the committee’s decision like I did with When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I had a hard time getting engaged and engrossed by it, and I think I’m going to have a hard time convincing kids to read it. The biggest draw is I think the growing number of dead bodies, but although there are some suspicions, it’s not brought up until almost the end of the story, and even then quite suddenly. There is little suspense, if any, and the resolution of this mystery is accomplished quite suddenly, with not even a glimpse into the police work involved in “solving” the “crime” and no real rationale behind it. I found the obituaries that Miss Volker writes somewhat humorous, but I’m not sure how much humor tweens would get out of them.

The best way I can describe this book is odd. Jack does all sorts of “odd” things during his two month sentence, from driving a car and examining dead bodies (his sort-of friend’s dad owns the funeral home) to buying rat poison and digging a bomb shelter. His dad is odd, insisting that Jack mow down his mother’s corn to make room for a runway for an old airplane that Jack’s dad bought at a surplus auction. The chief of police chases people in a tricycle, a Hell’s Angel drops dead from dancing, and the old houses are being bought up and transported to another town. Even the cover of the book is “odd”, with Jack’s missing head behind the sign giving no inclination of the deaths in the book. The whole town is odd, but not in the Gilmore Girls series kind of kooky, just a collection of oddities.

The other thing I would have liked to have seen is an author’s note in the back separating fact from fiction. Obviously it’s semi-autobiographical since the main character shares a name with the author and grows up in a town where the author grew up. An accounting of what is fact and what is fiction would have been much appreciated and could have allowed for a strong connection for readers.

I’m sorry to say that this one fell flat for me.

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