Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Every month, the leaders of my Young-at-Heart book club (older women who read young adult literature) offer up two book suggestions and the group selects one to read for the next selection. For this month, we couldn't decide, so we elected to read both of the suggested books: Jack Gantos' Newbery Award winning Dead End in Norvelt, and Gary D. Schmidt's book, Okay for Now. Having gushed outrageously about Schmidt's book earlier this year, I probably went into the reading of Gantos' book with some skepticism for it living up to the other selection. For me, it was clearly the lesser of the two. So, I begin this review with the disclaimer that I probably wasn't open for giving this book a fair shake or wasn't enough in the mood to enjoy it fully (especially given the fact that it was a Newbery winner and yet I didn't enjoy it as much as I normally would enjoy a Newbery winner).

Gantos' novel is about a young boy, Jack Gantos, (how much of this story is autobiographical? I don't know, but I'm guessing a fair amount) who is grounded for the entire summer of 1962 and forced to work with an elderly neighbor writing obituaries for the founding members of his historic town, Norvelt. Truth and fiction are definitely blended in this wild tale. I liked the historical bits, along with the exploits of the young boy. It was interesting to learn about the town of Norvelt, a town created to be a more dignified group of dwellings for coal-mining families, established by Eleanor Roosevelt, and thereby named for the last two suffixes of her name, Elea-NOR and Roose-VELT. Smatterings of history pepper Gantos' tale, from the boys' own reading and from the elderly neighbor's obituaries, embellished with historical connections.

Perhaps I am just feeling jaded against metaphors and similes these days. It seemed like Gantos' book suffered from the same tiresome over-use of comparison as the recent self-published book I read, Addison's Mark. My feeling is that such comparisons should enhance the reading, but when too many are presented, they tend to weigh the writing down. They draw attention to the writer ("look how clever I am for the comparison I was able to craft") and away from the story (something the reader wants to be fully absorbed in without the interruption of knowledge that there is someone behind the scenes crafting it all).

I also could have done without the euphemistic "cheese-us-crust." As the main character's mother points out, it is really no different than saying the curse it implies. Plus, it just came off as so ridiculous.

Still, the writing in this book is very good, apart from that, and the story is interesting. The main character and supporting characters are lively and unique. Along the way, the reader is entertained by a mysteriously-loaded Japanese rifle, molten wax, Girl Scout cookies, a policeman who rides a tricycle, a homemade airplane, Hells Angels, underage driving (which seemed glorified?), endless bloody noses and the possibility of murder (murder of the elderly presented as not that big a deal?). It is, indeed, a wild ride. But, Newbery winner? I didn't think so. Schmidt's book, Okay for Now, is a much better choice. Schmidt's book leaves you contemplating loftier sentiments and has a much better take-away value. Hopefully my book club will spend more time talking about it than talking about Gantos' book.


Sheila @ The Deliberate Reader said...

Hmmm, I just borrowed this one to try, and now I'm not sure I want to invest the reading time. I loved Schmidt' books, so hearing it compared unfavorably to those doesn't motivate me.

Wendy said...

I'll be curious to hear your response if you do bite the bullet and give it a shot. It IS a Newbery and was well-written and entertaining, I just didn't see it as deserving of a Newbery in my opinion.