Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dead end in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack's life has gone down the drain. Everything seemed like it was going great - school was out, his dad wasn't there to see Jack sneak his Japanese war souvenirs, and he's all set for a summer of playing baseball with Bunny, the closest thing he has to a friend. The only drawback is his constant nosebleeds.

Then his mom hires him out to assist the elderly Miss Volker, his dad comes back with some crazy ideas and everything is out of control. Before Jack knows it, he's mixed up with dead bodies, melting wax, airplanes, and he's gotten grounded for the whole summer.

Filled with people that range from the mildly eccentric to the completely insane, Jack Gantos' newest novel is packed with strange characters, odd reflections, and throughout the whole story runs the theme of history and how it affects us and we affect it. By the end of the story, Jack may not be much better off or even sadder but wiser although he's learned a few lessons, but he's had one unbelievable summer.

I was feeling a little doubtful about reading this book because Jack Gantos leans heavily on the "quirky and not in a good way" type of characters, but I found myself snickering throughout most of the first half of the book. Then staring at the pages in disbelief, then reading insanely, unable to stop until I found out What Happened Next.

Now, I'm not sure how I feel about this title. Is it well-written? Yes. The characters are consistent, the prose is addictive, the historical sections are seamlessly blended into the plot and dialogue. Is it interesting? Well, it definitely held my attention throughout. Does it have kid-appeal? I don't know. I can certainly see myself booktalking it "Jack has a whole summer ahead of him...unfortunately, his mom has volunteered him to write obituaries, the town is dying - literally - and his dad is hatching one crazy scheme after another." Or, "This book is about melting wax, blood, death, and history." But will kids read past the first couple chapters and get involved in the quirky characters, historical meanderings, and oddly depressing atmosphere of life in a dying small town in the 1960s?

I'm not sure how I feel about the cover. It certainly represents the book well, but will kids pick it up? Gantos' other works aren't hugely popular at our library, although I've had one or two kids ask for Joey Pigza. I can see this title winning awards - historical fiction always seems popular with the committees, but I don't see it becoming a popular favorite.

Verdict: If you have enough budget to speculate, purchase it. I don't, so I'll wait to see if any kids ask for it or if it wins an award. Meanwhile, I'll pass out the arc to some selected test subjects and see what they think.

ISBN: 9780374379933; Published September 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux; ARC provided by publisher

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