Jack Gantos is grounded for the entire summer in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, in 1962. How did Jack get himself grounded during the entire summer? He accidentally shot a bullet from his father’s Japanese rifle and disobeyed his mother’s commands when he cut down her corn crop. To get out of the house, Jack agrees to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, type obituaries. Miss Volker is a Norvelt town original and it is her duty to report obituaries for the original Norvelt citizens. The obituaries include much more than just information about the deceased, instead it is historical narratives about how their life impacted the small town. There are many colorful characters in Norvelt. Jack’s best friend is Bunny whose father is the town undertaker. Mr. Spizz rides an adult tricycle and adores Miss Volker, yet she has no plans to marry him. Each obituary leads to new adventures with real historical information scrambled in the book. Miss Volker always reminds Jack that people need to learn from the past, because mistakes can be repeated. Sprinkled inside the story are Girl Scout cookies, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Hells Angels, melted wax, a homemade airplane, a bloody nose, and even a possible murder.
Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction in 2012. Personally, I think this book was very humorous at times but I’m not sure it fully deserves a Newbery Medal. I think the book had little emotion, plot, character development, and it didn’t leave me with a lasting moral or lesson the way many wonderful Newbery Medal books have done. I enjoyed that there was real history throughout the pages, since Jack spent his grounded time reading historical books and he learned information from Miss Volker when writing the obituaries. If you’re searching for a book with sarcastic humor, death, true facts, and a glance into 1962 as a child then this may be your book.