Jack’s back! The Jack from “Dead End in Norvelt,” that is, the bemused semi-
autobiographical character who bears his creator’s name: Jack Gantos. The words “zany” and “Newbery Medal” don’t often combine, but that darkly comic novel earned the prestigious prize last year. Gantos also put the town of Norvelt, Pa. (championed by Eleanor Roosevelt) on the literary map and imprinted 12-year-old Jack and his wily old neighbor Miss Volker on our funny bones.
This time, the map has widened to include Washington and a madcap drive to Florida. “From Norvelt to Nowhere” picks up where “Dead End in Norvelt” left off. It is 1962, and Jack and Miss Volker have just identified the man behind the town’s rash of sudden deaths: Miss Volker’s elderly beau, Mr. Spizz.
The murderer is now on the run, and Miss Volker is determined to hunt him down. This plot is as twisting as the Southern roads traveled by the two “perfectly mismatched” friends, with poisonous cookies, a honed harpoon and the Fountain of Youth thrown in. Historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of Eleanor Roosevelt (Miss Volker’s idol) add more complications.
As in the preceding novel, Miss Volker regales Jack with historical tidbits usually absent from schoolbooks. She calls the philandering Franklin D. Roosevelt a “common two-timer” and describes Abraham Lincoln’s shameful part in making “reservation slaves” of the Native Americans. Jack struggles to reconcile these flaws with the positive traits of these great men, and he notes their resemblance to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose tale he reads in a Classics Illustrated comic book. Understanding that both good and bad can reside in one person also helps him make sense of Miss Volker’s sometimes contradictory behavior and of his own actions.
Gantos’s quirky vision and precise, hilarious turns of phrase have been constants in his many books for young people. In a few choice words, he can vividly render major and minor characters. His characterization of Miss Volker, though, occasionally falters. This complex old lady, one of the most intriguing elders in children’s fiction, shades into caricature as she rants (too frequently) about spearing Spizz, whom she likens to Captain Ahab’s great white whale.
But young Jack comes into sharp focus. He’s the little-heeded chirp of reason for his erratic older companion as he strives, against great odds and oddballs, to be “that boy who could be counted on to act like a man.” The whole story careens to a surprising, satisfying end that still leaves doors open for a possible sequel.
Quattlebaum teaches in Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her most recent book is “Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods.”