by Jack Gantos
First sentence: “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.”
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From the get-go, I found this book to be weird. It’s basically the story of Jack Gantos (no, I don’t know how much is real and how much is fiction, but it’s in the fiction section, so let’s assume it’s more fiction than fact) who lives in the (real) town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania and the summer (of 1962) he spent grounded. For mowing down his mother’s cornfield. On his father’s orders.
He’s let off as often as his next-door neighbor, Miss Volker, needs his help. She’s the town medical examiner and obituary writer, but severe arthritis in her hands is keeping her from doing very much, and so she gets Jack to help her out. This leads to not only some pretty long-winded, but sometimes interesting, stories about the original residents of Norvelt. Not to mention Norvelt history (was Eleanor Roosevelt really involved?). There’s also a bit of a mystery thrown at us at the end: all the original residents are dropping like flies, and someone is finally asking if they really are “natural causes”, and there’s a band of Hell’s Angels that are burning down houses in town.
As I mentioned, I just found this one weird. Sure, it was sometimes funny: some of the situations that Jack finds himself in are quite, well, surreal and odd, which made them amusing. But, for the most part, I just found myself wondering what was real and what was fiction. I wished for an author’s note at the end, and was quite disappointed when Gantos chose not to include one. I never really connected with any of the character; aside from the spitfire Miss Volker, everyone else seemed to be cliches: the devoted mother, the tough father, the bully-ish best friend (who was a girl), the greedy business owner, the annoying busybody. I never cared enough about the characters to read through all the history, and found myself skipping pages.
That said, maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for this one. Perhaps some 11- or 12-year-old boy would find Jack and his adventures the right mix of history and fun.