“Dead End in Norvelt,” by Jack Gantos

The summer of ’62 proves to be a bumper-car ride through history for young Jack Gantos in this wonderfully wacky semi-autobiographical novel by the author of the same name.

Grounded by his parents, Jack still manages to be in the thick of small-town doings, thanks to Miss Volker, whose arthritic hands necessitate his services as scribe for her newspaper obituaries. In her free-ranging tributes, Miss Volker blends details about the deceased with town history (Norvelt was founded in 1934 by Eleanor Roosevelt) and world events (such as the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381). These, in turn, pique Jack’s quirky reflections on gossip, war movies, factories and the gold-crazed Spanish explorers lauded in American textbooks of the time.

As the summer progresses, the number of obituaries and corpses increases suspiciously, and Jack and the elderly busybody Mr. Spizz vie with one another to discover the truth.

The darkly comic mystery and oddball characters make for some good laughs, but the riffs on history raise the consciousness as well: Who gets to record events and, thus, shape the public’s perception of the past? Gantos suggests that history need not be the purview of conquerors and learned professors alone. Maybe even a fidgety guy who is “a little too drifty in school” can pen his version — and inspire today’s young readers to do the same.

— Mary Quattlebaum

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