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Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

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Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

To The Boy in Berlin – Elizabeth Honey and Heike Brandt

To the Boy in Berlin

Alright – so I have to admit that I am a little bit of a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ junkie.  I love historical stuff, especially primary source material – diaries, ships lists, old letters, photos, census records…so the design of the book, incorporating these bits and pieces really appealed to me. I  think it probably deserved to win the APA Best Designed prize.

I also love a bit of a puzzle – a good mystery to unfold.  So long as there are enough clues hanging around for me to be able to reasonably ‘solve’ it.  All those years of Enid Blyton set a bit of a reading dietary requirement (My terrible reading secret is that I enjoy a good Kathy Reichs – Tempe Brennan novel peppered in amongst the other stuff).

And, having been intrigued by time travel novels, of a very specific kind, since I was very young (Charlotte Sometimes, Tom’s Midnight Garden, A Stitch in Time, The Ghosts)  I guess maybe I thought this story was going to be something it wasn’t…not that it promised that – I just presumed…

HOWEVER, two out of three ain’t bad…and nor is this book.  Basic plot summary:  Henni Octon (main character, 13yr old Australian girl in 7th grade) is on holiday when she discovers Leopold Schmidt.  A German boy who was 13 yrs old in 1914.  His height was recorded on the kitchen door frame, and his name is in several German books.  But there is a mystery.  In 1915 the Schmidts suddenly left Cauldron Bay, and nobody could (or would) say why.  This piques Henni’s curiosity enough for her to leave a note in one the boxes of German games and books the family had discovered.  In an odd coincidence the letter is discovered by the uncle of a present day Leo Schmidt, living in Berlin.

Who, also coincidentally, is 13 years old.  Coincidentally, Leo’s mother is called Bettina, as was Leopold’s, and Leo’s father is a carpenter, as was Leopold’s.  Hmmmm…when does coincidence become lazy/poor plot structure?  Although, the character of Leo did take the time to say that he wouldn’t believe that coincidence if he read it in a book (which reminded me of a scene in The Kite Runner, strangely enough), this just didn’t ring true and seemed unnecessary to the story, in the end…  (One star gone – I just couldn’t buy it.  Mysterious, really, when I can buy time travel…if the plot stands up to it).  So, anyway, Henni and Leo begin communicating via email.

And all of my teacher/parent instincts kick in to say, ‘what are you doing, Henni? and Henni’s parents…this guy could be anyone!!!!  I waited for parents/teachers/anyone to remind her that this is really unsafe cyber behaviour, and it just didn’t happen. (Another half star down…Books don’t need to be morality tales, or netiquette safety handbooks, but this is blatantly unsafe behaviour and there is no consequence at all…not even a severe discussion with the teacher)

But getting the voice for Leo right was great.  Somehow, even in English, he had a German accent.  I felt that the grammatical errors were consistent and appropriate…not over done.  His voice was weirdly adult, but that was kind of OK, since he seemed a formal kind of kid.  I would have liked the characters to have been at least a year older to really be convinced of their age.  But, again, plot devices got in the way, I suspect.  Leo needed to be under 14 for various plot driven reasons.  He also really presented some interesting moral dilemmas and modern understandings of racial disharmony and tensions, and modern Germany – often neglected by those who get embroiled in reading about WW2.

So, as to the last half star, the star that took this book from maybe a four – nearly – to absolutely a three.  The emails.  For a story of the complexity that this one has, the denouement needs to be spectacularly wrought.  The build up was fantastic..the tension was developed, the clues were dropped (although not as explored as I would have liked – eg I really wanted a closer look at that rocking horse), and the links were made.  Now for the unravelling…

But here, the writers hit a spectacular road block.  How to convey the climax of the story through the emails of a 13 year old girl, writing to a 13 year old boy, and remain true to her voice.  I won’t reveal any plot, and I think the content of it was great.  I just didn’t like the telling.  I felt cheated, if I am honest.  I wondered if perhaps, now, the main character needs to write another book.  This one could be her as an adult, writing a novel, based on the stuff that happened when she was thirteen.  The novel could have two voices – hers and Leopold’s.  Or, maybe, Leo and Leopold.  So perhaps it would have to be Leo, grown up, writing the story.  Hmmm…not sure.

This book is worth a read.  Particularly if you enjoy a bit of a mystery, a bit of history, and a journal/ letter style of novel.  I haven’t read Elizabeth Honey’s other books, but I am tempted to at least give The Ballad of Cauldron Bay a go, because I did enjoy Henni as a character.

This book gets a 3/5 star rating from me.

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+