Jack Gantos on the Real Norvelt, Propaganda, and Good News | The Newbery at 100

The Dead End in Norvelt author talks about why he reads history, his inspiration for Miss Volker, and how "the facts nourish free will."  

Jack Gantos and his Newbery titles

Jack Gantos has made elementary and middle grade readers, along with their parents, teachers, and librarians, laugh out loud for decades. Whether writing picture books, beginner readers, or middle grade fiction, Gantos knows how to calibrate character and circumstance to craft protagonists readers recognize and relish. Since 1978, the author has taught and mentored generations of writers while achieving critical acclaim: a Michael L. Printz Honor, a Robert F. Sibert Honor, a National Book Award Finalist, and a 2001 Newbery Honor for Joey Pigza Loses Control. Gantos’s autobiographical historical novel Dead End in Norvelt (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux) received the 2012 Newbery Medal.

In what ways did winning the Newbery change how you view your body of work (or “corpus,” to quote your Newbery acceptance speech) and the content of your work?
Who would not like all of their books to be medal winners? But I am very fortunate: I have written the “Rotten Ralph” picture books and they are still in print and being read. The “Jack Henry” five volumes of short stories are still in print and being read. Writing Radar is used as a guide to writing in schools across the country. My drug smuggling/prison memoir, Hole in My Life, won awards and is widely read and takes me into high schools and prisons all over the country. The “Joey Pigza” series of books has won awards and is still in print and being read by some pretty lively readers! (I get a lot of letters from those readers). I think the answer to that question is always the same: Have I written the best book I can? Will readers be moved by it?

What is “real” in the Norvelt of Dead End in Norvelt? Where does your real life end and the world building begin?

“If you don’t know your history, anyone can lie to you and call it the truth.”Miss Walker

The community of Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) as I wrote about it was shaped by my childhood memories of living there—mostly with my grandparents. After my first grade year in Norvelt, my parents moved the family to Barbados and St. Lucia and then to Florida, but we often returned for Christmas and summers to spend time with my mother’s family, who lived in the house where Dead End in Norvelt is set.

In 1962 I was 11 years old, and the world was living in peril—history was in the making. The Cuban Missile Crisis was immense in my world. At the time, we were living in Florida, roughly 100 miles away from nuclear missiles aimed at us. I recall my teacher pointing at the classroom clock and saying, “The nuclear war begins at noon.” We were terrified. My father had been in World War II, so I was well aware of the destruction of war from his stories of battles in the South Pacific. Fortunately, JFK managed to win the game of “nuclear chicken” with Khrushchev and Castro.

Miss Volker was based on a great woman, Miss Walker. She was a nurse, retired, feisty, and well educated and had arthritic hands. My mother would make me visit her to help her out around the house. She was a big reader of history and was always fond of saying, “If you don’t know your history, anyone can lie to you and call it the truth.” And my mother was always lecturing me on the importance of being truthful. Which is why I read a lot of history, and still do.

Miss Volker’s insistence that everyone needs to know the truths and lessons of history foresaw what is happening in our own time, where lies are systematically passed off as truths—and the "news" is distorted for political gains. She was insistent about parsing facts with "primary sources." She had a big influence on me. And she did warm her arthritic hands in hot wax to relieve some of the pain, and to give her fingers some temporary flexibility. My memory of her, and respect for her values and intellect, really impressed me then and continue to guide me.

Miss Walker’s wisdom certainly does ring true today, in ways that perhaps couldn’t be imagined in 1962 or even as recently as 2012, when Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery. While the novel is a work of autobiographical historical fiction set in 1962 during the Cold War, readers absorb a lot of additional information about the Great Depression and World War II a generation earlier. The novel is also peppered with facts about other places and times, thanks to Jack’s reading and Miss Volker’s obituaries. What are some of the connections today’s readers of the novel, likely not born when the book was published, might make between past and present?

“The facts nourish free will.”Miss Volker

When planning to write Dead End in Norvelt, I looked over the time frame for the book from beginning to end, and the calendar of historic events I might be able to include. As you know, Miss Volker linked her passionate “This Day in History” editorials onto the dignified obituaries of the old ladies who mysteriously died in Norvelt. I had a long list of historic events that I wanted to include, but often I could not fit them in because the dates would overlap and ruin the pacing of the novel—plus, I could only fit in so many dead old ladies, and I had to concern myself with selecting a wide variety of history bits in order to sustain the reader’s interest.

When the community of Norvelt was built during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was a "helping hands" community, with a communal farm, and factory, schools, and houses. The government got into the business of helping impoverished folks who were out of work. Social, religious, and other non-governmental agencies were also involved. There may have been a hundred "Norvelt-type" towns across the country. But the United States was no social utopia. Despite a rancorous Civil War, the bloodiest war in our history of wars, African Americans and Native Americans—and many other immigrant minorities, including the poor—were not provided an equal “Norvelt” safety net.

Miss Volker saw both the positive side of good government and the negative side. She saw the positives in balancing capitalism and socialism. She saw the deep goodness in people helping people, and the negative in people hurting people. And she believed that equality for all, opportunity for all, education for all, would provide self-respect for all, and harmony among people. Plus, she also believed that it was the individual’s responsibility to check their own facts—to read books, to think for themselves, to separate out truth and good intentions from propaganda, lies, and the devious consequences of manipulative narratives, like those in some of the radio broadcasts in her time and the vile and viral “fake news” broadcasts in ours.

Today, the propaganda wars are fought non-stop by big-mouth influencers who may or may not be honest. In response to those who distort honesty for their own gain, the greatest individual liberty Americans can achieve is best expressed in seeking the truth and pursuing values that are healthy for themselves and for their community.

I hope that readers of Dead End in Norvelt seek out the positive connections between the good work they find people achieving in the world today, and the best intentions of individuals and governments in our past. When I was gathering day-by-day research for tragic historic events, there was no day on the calendar where there was not an equal example of the best of humanity. As Miss Volker would say, “Good things do happen all day long, but they don’t always make the news.”

Mary Ann Cappiello is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, an author, and a blogger at “The Classroom Bookshelf.” Follow her on Twitter @MA_Cappiello.

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