Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt

DEAD END IN NORVELT is a cornfield plowed under. It is bloody bad. It reminds me of a bomb shelter waiting to be annihilated. And it has about as much usefulness. I didn't like it; I don't recommend it much. But then, I'm not among the demographic for which it is written. I'm no kid. Rather, I stem from the era it is set in. In 1960, I was twelve years old. So I believe I know something of the time period. At least, I do from an old man's perspective looking back and remembering. And that's one thing I liked about the book: it did make me think of that period of my life; it was nostalgic, in some respects.

So, Jack, the protagonist in DEAD END IN NORVELT, gets into trouble and gets grounded. After all, he's just a young boy and he needs to learn a lesson from his errors. Or not. First, he's grounded for firing a souvenir Japanese rifle of his father's --- Why the heck (cheese us crust, by the way, as a euphemism, is pathetic) does Jack have access to the gun in the first place? --- then he gets in trouble for mowing his mother's corn down --- After his father told him to do it. --- then he gets in trouble for something else, and something else, and something else, etc. The cycle repeats itself again and again, tirelessly, tiresomely. And most of the time, Jack's not entirely at fault for the trouble he gets into, but nobody else (eg. his parents and mentors) seems to take any responsibility at all for him getting into trouble. For heaven sakes, the adults have him driving a car around all over with an eighty-year-old mentor, Mrs. Volker, in it without him being old enough to do so or having a driver's license. No biggie.

Over against that scenario of being grounded for getting into trouble, Jack's nose bleeds. Then it bleeds some more and some more and some more, etc. Jack doesn't ever seem to get any help from his parents for his bloody nose (or much else). It's not the type of trouble that they take action to help him out with. Instead, they send him off to Volker, the old-lady obituary-compiler of all the old people dying off in the dead end town. Volker suffers from crippling arthritis; her hands operate like the extremities of a crab. She melts wax to dip them in to get enough relief to stick a sharp instrument up Jack's nose to cauterize his blood vessels.

Caricatures. The characters in DEAD END IN NORVELT seem more like caricatures rather than fleshed out individuals who are real. The adults, for example, are substantially portrayed as selfish and self-interested, even when shown to have compassion for others. They have agendas, and they pursue their agendas to the exclusion of looking after the welfare and benefit of their kids. Dad: A bomb shelter. An airplane. A runway. Mom: Take care of the poor and elderly. Stay grounded. Mrs. Volker: Write the obituaries. Deride the tricycle guy. Etc.

Bottom line, the book's a mortuary, and you know what you'll find there: dead people. And that's where it all ends.

I had read OKAY FOR NOW some time ago and had hoped it would win the Newbery. When DEAD END IN NORVELT won, I had to read it for comparison's sake. I'm glad I did, but it hasn't changed my evaluation.