When Jack Gantos is grounded for the summer, he thinks he is in for the worst three months of his life. That changes, however, when Miss Volker, town medical examiner and obituary writer, enlists his help in typing articles for the local paper. Apparently, when Eleanor Roosevelt founded their small town of Norvelt, PA, Miss Volker promised the First Lady that she would see all its original inhabitants to their graves. Miss Volker intends to keep that promise, but she is not getting any younger herself. As luck would have it, these old timers are dropping dead one by one as the summer progresses. Is it just a convenient coincidence-or is there something sinister in the town of Norvelt?
Jack Gantos’ autobiographical story brings humor to the difficult topic of death. The reader cannot help but chuckle at Miss Volker’s obituaries into which she injects historical facts, her own political views and even sarcasm. Unfortunately, what starts out as the tongue-in-cheek rantings of an eccentric old lady gradually turns into a not so subtle advertisement for euthanasia. Miss Volker makes it clear that she believes the elderly have a duty to move on to their eternal reward:
“Honestly, this poor town is in trouble. We old ones just hang on and on. We don’t do anything for the community…I’d rather have the people drop dead than have the town drop dead and vanish from history…The best thing to do is what I did. I sold my sister’s empty house to a nice young man a few months ago and I’m hoping he attracts more young people.”
Miss Volker’s views are not only seconded by Jack’s father, but also by his mother:
I turned back to Mom, who shrugged. “Well…I’d hate to see these old folks move on to the next world, but for some of them it might be for the best.”
“How can dying be good for you?” I asked.
“When living is worse,” she replied matter-of-factly.
And this from a woman who cooks meals for the elderly every week! Clearly “quality of life” and utility trump respect for human life and the wisdom of the older generations.
Another sad aspect of Gantos’ book is the disunity between his parents. The exaggerated differences in their political views add light humor to the story. (Jack’s father is a vehemently anti-communist veteran of WWII who loves to hunt and has no time for New Deal programs. His mother spends quite a bit of time defending Norvelt’s progressive origins and cooks meals for the poor.) Unfortunately, Jack often finds himself caught in the middle of their arguments. Indeed, he is grounded at the beginning of the book when they have a disagreement, and he must decide which of them to obey. In the process, they both become angry with him. Middle schoolers will see the injustice in this example of poor parenting. Frankly, if readers are interested in award winning books, they should try last year’s Newbery choice, Moon Over Manifest.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.