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Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt

Written by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York
ISBN: 978-0-374-37993-3

Grades 5 and Up

Book Review

Few authors can do what Jack Gantos manages to do in Dead End in Norvelt. As you turn the pages, you laugh out loud, clutching your sides. Next, you ponder the lessons of history. Then, you feel compelled to deliver a casserole to an elderly neighbor. Through the microcosm of a small town, Gantos captures a nation in the growing pains of the mid- 20th century, specifically the summer of 1962. Some cling to the worldview of the Great Depression, when the town came into being as part of FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, a planned Homestead Community in which the residents built one another’s houses and bartered for goods and services as a “hand up, not a hand out.” Some look to a future beyond Norvelt, and its very future is in question. John Glen recently orbited the earth, and now even the houses of Norvelt are on the move, to Eleanor, West Virginia, a more successful Homestead Community that has embraced capitalism. Jack is grounded for the summer, because he fired his father’s Japanese rifle without permission, lied about it, and then mowed over his mother’s cornfield. He is only allowed out of the house to do errands for the elderly Miss Volker, who is the town medical examiner, obituary writer, and historian all wrapped up into one arthritic package. Jack ensures Miss Volker has a steady supply of Thin Mints, poison, and cleanly-typed obits, while she teaches him the lessons of history in a local, national, and global context (while also finding time to conduct surgery on Jack’s constantly-bleeding nose using second-hand veterinary tools). It is their relationship that propels the story forward, as Jack begins to see the present and the past through a new set of lenses. Gantos keep his readers laughing along with his characters, but he never resorts to caricature, nor does he allow small town life to be too sentimental. In fact, it’s anything but. Children don’t feel nostalgia, and this is a novel that could have been consumed by it. Rather, through hilarious dialogue and rich characterization, peppered with an adult-sized tricycle, a gang of Hell’s Angels, and a business-minded mortician, Gantos lets the story be Jack’s alone.

Teaching Invitations

Grades 5-8

  • Exploring History. Over the course of the novel, Jack’s interest in history grows from the personal stories he hears about families in Norvelt and the nonfiction books he reads in his room while grounded. Have students select the historical tidbits of interest to them individually, and provide them with an opportunity to research those events or people more specifically. Using podcasts, audio presentations, or live presentations in class, have students share their findings with one another. Next, have them trace the connections between the researched events and figures. What are some of the threads of conflict and connection that they can find? How are the conflicts and connections similar and different from one another over time?
  • Understanding Eleanor. Two towns in this novel are named in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the Homestead Communities were being planned, it was Eleanor who insisted, in opposition to the President and many of his advisers, that the homes have electricity and running water, to allow residents to live in dignity. Why did she fight on behalf of the poor and marginalized? Have your students explore some of the excellent biographies about Eleanor Roosevelt (see Further Explorations below) to learn more about this fascinating woman.
  • Grounded with Grown-Ups. Most novels for young people are populated with friends, neighbors, siblings, and classmates of a similar age. Often, the action takes place in the world of children, away from the prying eyes of grown-ups. But in Dead End in Norvelt, Jack is forced to spend much of his summer with grown-ups, not children. Have your students explore Jack’s relationship with adults. Additionally, have them explore their personal reaction to the book. Did they notice the absence of children? Did they find the passages with Bunny to be their favorite parts for that reason? Did the lack of children still allow the book to “work” for them?
  • Researching Homestead Communities. Dead End in Norvelt might have readers assume that the original Norvelt community is dead and gone. And yet, Norvelt, Pennsylvania is still on the map, as are other Homestead Communities, including Eleanor, West Virginia where some houses were shipped during the novel, courtesy of Jack’s father. Have students explore the origin of these communities (The National Industrial Recovery Act) and the ways in which the communities have grown and changed over the years (see Further Explorations below). Next, have students consider what these communities might tell us about our present day housing conflicts. How did the National Industrial Recovery Act accomplish and fail to accomplish its goals? How can those lessons be used to consider the foreclosure crisis we currently face? What should be done with all of the homes in foreclosure? What do students think the federal government should and should not do when it comes to housing its citizens?
  • Building Community. As a Homestead Community, Norvelt was founded on lofty ideals that Jack’s mother and Miss Volker desperately hold onto. Have students consider some of the ways that they can be more involved in their community, regardless of their own family’s current economic conditions. Consider the following: volunteering at a soup kitchen, recording books for the elderly at school, or offering company to the homebound. Jack’s mother also forages for food and plants a garden and corn field on behalf of her elderly neighbors. What role does a community garden play in your town or at your school? Can students be involved in gardening in the warmer months in order to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to a local food bank? Can a greenhouse be built? Finally, how can students get their parents and siblings more involved in the community?
  • Bartering. As a Homestead Community, Norvelt was built by the community, with each member providing needed services in the construction process. Throughout the novel, Jack ponders his mothers’ idealist commitment to bartering versus his father’s desire to earn cash. What do your students think? Explore some of the ways in which bartering has worked historically around the world. Can students get through a week without buying anything, bartering with one another for what they need? Give it a try, and then have them write about the positive and negative aspects of bartering in terms of community building and economics.

Critical Literacy

  • Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. A few months after Dead End in Norvelt ends, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in October of 1962. Four recently written middle grade novels (see Further Explorations below) use the crisis as a backdrop for fiction; two take place in the US, one in England, and one in Canada. Three out of the four feature eleven-year-old protagonists, like Jack. After students complete Dead End in Norvelt (either as a read aloud or a whole class assigned novel), break them up into four groups and have each group explore one of the other novels. Next, have them compare and contrast how the crisis was depicted in each. Whose perspectives are given voice in these books? How does the fuller portrait of all four books offer a more complete perspective on the complexity of the event than any single title could do on its own? Finally, use this experience as another lens for Dead End in Norvelt. How has their understanding of the summer of 1962 and the events in Norvelt been changed by these novels about life a few months later? How might the residents of Norvelt reacted to the crisis? Use multimedia resources to make the early 1960s come alive.
  • History and Point-of-View. On page 90, while reading a book about Cortes’s slaughter of the Aztecs, Jack remembers words of wisdom from Miss Volker: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Throughout the novel, Jack continues to ponder the lessons of history. Often, we ask our students to read history written by the conquerors. Try to locate a variety of older middle school social studies textbooks, ideally one per decade during the 20th century. You might find them somewhere in your school, or at a local university library. Compare and contrast one people, such as the Aztecs, and one historical event, such as their slaughter by Cortes. How much space is devoted to the history of the Aztecs? Are the Aztecs treated as fully dimensional people? Was Cortez demonized, deified, or something in-between? From whose point-of-view is the textbook written? Whose voices and perspectives are brought in to the discussion through the use of primary source material? Whose are left out? Compare these to a contemporary textbook. What, if anything, is different? If possible, compare and contrast this with a Mexican middle grade social studies textbook and its representation of the events related to Cortes.How does this inform your students own research and nonfiction writing?

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Jack Gantos, Official Website

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act, June 16, 1933

Town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania Volunteer Fireman’s Club Facebook Page

Town of Eleanor, West Virginia

Town of Arthurdale, West Virginia’s (another New Deal Homestead Community)

Town of Cumberland, Tennessee (another New Deal Homestead Community)

Cumberland, Tennessee for Kids, Tennessee Historical Society


October, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis

Almond, D. (2005). The fire-eaters. New York: Yearling.

  • Author David Almond provides the British point-of-view as readers experience Bobby Burns’s perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Wiles, D. (2010). Countdown. New York: Scholastic.

  • This multi-genre novel takes place just a few months after Dead End in Norvelt ends. Like Jack, Franny Chapman, is eleven years old as she struggles with the changes in her family and herself during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962.

Wittlinger, E. (2010). This means war! New York: Simon and Shuster Books for Young Readers.

  • Also set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this historical novel centers around the increasingly tense relationship between the boys and girls at protagonist Juliet’s school.

Wynne-Jones, T. (2007). Rex Zero at the end of the world. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books.

  • Wynne-Jones provides readers with another novel set during the summer of 1962, in this case, Ottawa. Like Jack in Dead End in Norvelt and Franny in Countdown, protagonist Rex is also eleven years old.

Eleanor Roosevelt Biographies

Fleming, C. (2005). Our Eleanor: A scrapbook look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s remarkable life. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

  • This multigenre work of nonfiction provides middle grade readers with a full immersion into Roosevelt’s personal and public lives.

Freedman, R. (1993). Eleanor Roosevelt: A life of discovery. New York: Clarion.

  • This cradle-to-grave capture book biography is written by the masterful Russell Freedman.

Rappaport, D. (2009). Eleanor, quiet no more. Ill. by G. Kelley. New York:

  • This moving picture book biography provides readers with a balance between primary and secondary sources, as Roosevelt’s direct words appear in large, colored font. The book highlights the recurring themes in Roosevelt’s life deftly.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.