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Dead End in Norvelt (Norvelt Series) Hardcover – September 13, 2011
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So, Jack, the protagonist in DEAD END IN NORVELT, gets into trouble and gets grounded. After all, he's just a young boy and he needs to learn a lesson from his errors. Or not. First, he's grounded for firing a souvenir Japanese rifle of his father's --- Why the heck (cheese us crust, by the way, as a euphemism, is pathetic) does Jack have access to the gun in the first place? --- then he gets in trouble for mowing his mother's corn down --- After his father told him to do it. --- then he gets in trouble for something else, and something else, and something else, etc. The cycle repeats itself again and again, tirelessly, tiresomely. And most of the time, Jack's not entirely at fault for the trouble he gets into, but nobody else (eg. his parents and mentors) seems to take any responsibility at all for him getting into trouble. For heaven sakes, the adults have him driving a car around all over with an eighty-year-old mentor, Mrs. Volker, in it without him being old enough to do so or having a driver's license. No biggie.
Over against that scenario of being grounded for getting into trouble, Jack's nose bleeds. Then it bleeds some more and some more and some more, etc. Jack doesn't ever seem to get any help from his parents for his bloody nose (or much else). It's not the type of trouble that they take action to help him out with. Instead, they send him off to Volker, the old-lady obituary-compiler of all the old people dying off in the dead end town. Volker suffers from crippling arthritis; her hands operate like the extremities of a crab. She melts wax to dip them in to get enough relief to stick a sharp instrument up Jack's nose to cauterize his blood vessels.
Caricatures. The characters in DEAD END IN NORVELT seem more like caricatures rather than fleshed out individuals who are real. The adults, for example, are substantially portrayed as selfish and self-interested, even when shown to have compassion for others. They have agendas, and they pursue their agendas to the exclusion of looking after the welfare and benefit of their kids. Dad: A bomb shelter. An airplane. A runway. Mom: Take care of the poor and elderly. Stay grounded. Mrs. Volker: Write the obituaries. Deride the tricycle guy. Etc.
Bottom line, the book's a mortuary, and you know what you'll find there: dead people. And that's where it all ends.
I had read OKAY FOR NOW some time ago and had hoped it would win the Newbery. When DEAD END IN NORVELT won, I had to read it for comparison's sake. I'm glad I did, but it hasn't changed my evaluation.
Walt Eddy wrote ALEJANDRO THE GREAT.
The book is tightly woven from the point of view of a good-natured eleven- (then twelve-) year old boy growing up in the early '60s, a bit used and abused by the adults in his world.
The writing is wonderful, and in my opinion the author's metaphors and similes are often dazzling: "I could see the flames leaping into the air, and the confetti of glowing ash that floated above the flames...[The]blistering flames rising above the house...waving goodbye to everyone who was watching." About old, arthritic Mrs. Volker: "When she finished she plopped down onto her couch like a string puppet that had been cut loose. All her jumbled pieces slumped into herself, and with her forehead pressed against her tucked-up knees she fell into a deep sleep."
The unity of the book is complete, dealing, as it does, with the boy's obsession with death -- his own, the death of the town, the deaths of the town's old people, the death-work of the embalmer....
The main characters and secondary characters including the boy's mother, Mrs. Volker, Bunny, and Mr. Spizz are endearing and funny, and unlikely to be forgotten.
Having said all that, I'm not so sure that this is really a kid's book; at the end, when the mystery is solved, there is no moral payoff. Someone is outed, but there is no real consequences to the person's ill deeds. Life goes on -- or not, actually -- with little shock or horror, whereas the rest of the book deals, humorously, with right vs wrong.
It's really a terrific book, if for adults. The best part is that it's tear-inducing hilarious.
None of the characters were sympathetic, believable, or likable. The strangest thing about this book was the weird way the main character's parents behaved. They felt alien, or non-human, although I'm not sure the author intended for them to be so unnatural (which is especially odd since this book is categorized as historical fiction). They were on the verge of psychotic and abusive, although the story seems to act as if they're perfectly normal. Many events in the book felt forced and disjointed, such as the weird deer scene toward the end. It just came out of nowhere and served only to resolve a plot point. The ending itself was overly predictable, which was disappointing.
Skip this one and read any other Newbery winners, which I've usually found to be worthy of the prize.
Mrs. Volker has arthritis in her hands and can no longer write or type up the obituaries for the Norvelt News. Through the obituaries she tells the history of the deceased. The deceased have recently become the original women of the town of Norvelt. Jack loves this new job since he loves history. He has one problem, if he gets overly excited his nose will begin to bleed. As the elderly women of Norvelt begin to drop like flies, people are beginning to wonder if it is murder. Mrs. Volker examines the bodies and pronounces each death that of natural causes. Not everyone is convinced. Could she be hiding something? This was a wonderful book full of history and lessons that the reader won't mind learning. The mystery was enough to keep you reading, yet not so difficult you couldn't figure it out. Highly recommended reading.
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Totally recommend it!