The 2012 Newbery-winning novel Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos stars a 12-year-old boy in the summer of 1962 named… Jack Gantos. Is it autobiography? No. Does Gantos the author incorporate factual elements of his boyhood experiences? Yes.
Gantos’s ability to spin aspects of his life into the fabric of his novels keeps us riveted. He also articulates well his process of keeping it clear in his own mind. I got a chance to speak with him before and after he won the Newbery Medal. In our conversation for School Library Journal (pre-Newbery), Gantos talked about his approach to incorporating autobiographical facts into his fiction: “It's my job to create a seamless world where readers don't know [what's] fact and [what's] fiction,” he said. “Otherwise, they'd trip over something that doesn't seem appropriate, or plausible, or wouldn't fit the setting or the characters' language. So you have to be sure that [thread-by-thread,] it's all of a piece, like a great Turkish rug.”
One of the things I loved most about Dead End in Norvelt was learning about the homestead communities started by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the input Eleanor Roosevelt had on the shaping of them. But the thing I enjoyed most about the book was the humor. And the character of Miss Volker, who wrote Norvelt’s obituaries but because of her acute arthritis used Jack as “her hands,” was the greatest source of that humor. In an interview for Shelf Awareness (post-Newbery), Gantos said there was indeed a Miss Volker in his life. His quote is an example of why the book is so funny: “I changed her name, but she's a real person,” Gantos said. “If you use the real name and attach unreal aspects to them, it seems a little unfair. Even if they're dead. Which she is. She was old then. Me, I don't care what I do with me. I'm making myself up as I go along.”
The other element of the book that I found so refreshing was the tension between Jack’s mother, who loved Norvelt and everything about its help-your-neighbor motto and would be happy to stay, and Jack’s father, who couldn’t wait to leave the place to go in search of “his piece of the American pie,” as Gantos put it. It was true for Jack then and it’s true for Gantos as an adult, that he could see the validity of both sides, and so Gantos the author presents both parents as sympathetic characters. That his parents stayed together despite this difference and the geographical moves they later made speaks to their strong connection. (Gantos’s father has since passed away, but his mother moved back to a town just outside of Norvelt.)
For readers and writers, Gantos’s books stand as strong examples of how events from one’s own life can be a starting point for weaving stories. The catalyst for this particular novel began when Gantos’s mother asked him to deliver the eulogy at her sister’s funeral, and as part of his eulogy, he spoke of Norvelt’s history. Several people in attendance said they hadn’t known about the town’s genesis as a model community. “It seemed to me that the great history of the town had lifted like a fog, and people no longer saw it,” Gantos said. “They didn't realize what the universal values of that town were, that it was a helping-hand town, and the government had that value as well. I started thinking more about Norvelt, and how valuable history was.”