Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dead End In Norvelt

The project of getting our kids prepared for a university of their choice involves reading time together. The first book completed in this endeavor this summer was E.B. White’s 1952 classic, Charlotte’s Web. Immediately thereafter, we started Jack Gantos’s 2012 Newbery Award winning Dead End In Norvelt. The story is situated in the Cold War era of the 1950s and makes frequent reference to the New Deal. In fact, the name of the Midwestern town of Norvelt is a derivation of Eleanor Roosevelt who promoted the creation of affordable housing for the working class. Miss Volker, a nurse and devotee of Roosevelt, promised to write an obituary for each of the original residents before leaving.

Gantos embeds historical commentary related not only to the New Deal and the McCarthy Era but also the New Immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and World War II, at home and abroad. In reading the story to my traviesos (mischievous children), I restrained myself from explaining the historical landscape detailed by the author in order not to interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Like White’s Charlotte’s Web, Gantos adroitly complements the personalities of the characters to amplify the forces at work. For example, Jack Gantos, who is also the name of the main character, is a nosebleed prone adolescent in search of purpose, and comes to appreciate the power of the written word, history, and ideas. He learn this during his assignment to assist the valetudinarian Miss Volker stricken with arthritis and unable to write the obituaries accompanied by “this day in history” analects.

Jack’s father, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific theater, views the world through a Manichean lens of the Cold War. Dad prepares a bomb shelter for his family to survive an inevitable nuclear Armageddon. He also refers to Miss Volker as a Commie for her devotion to the New Deal. Public employees are also Commies in his eyes. In many ways, Jack’s father is a Babbitt of the variety within the writings of Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and H.L. Mencken.

The dying town of Norvelt is also a largely white community. White residents denied the Jeffersonian, middle-class dream of homeownership to black migrants. It was only when the Roosevelts were moved by the appeal of one black family that an accommodation was made. Mrs. White, the wife and mother of the only black family in town, advanced the naming of the town founded during the Great Depression in tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt.

In finishing the book, Jack Gantos validated my belief that the line between fact and fiction can be artificial. Many places like Norvelt exist that are, in the words of Gantos, off-kilter “where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.”

Con Safos

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