Monday, September 30, 2013

Jack On The Road: From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

"You don't want to flatten me," Bunny Hoffer warned, "'cause I have some incredible news."

"Another Russian sneak attack?" I asked.

"Better than that," she cried out.

"Well, don't just stand there like a lawn gnome," Miss Volker snapped, referring to Bunny's stumpy size. "Spit it out!"

"Well," she boldly announced with a flourish. "Private sources tell me that a very old lady named Mrs. Custer at house E-19 has returned to town. And you know what that means."

"Do tell me," Miss Volker replied with disdain.

"It means," Bunny explained slowly, calculating the impact of her point, "that you are no longer the last standing original old Norvelter in Norvelt."

It's Halloween afternoon, the Cuban missile crisis is in full swing, and the little town of Norvelt has barely recovered from the murder of all but one of its  ancient founding ladies. Only Miss Volker remains, given a lifetime charge by the town's founder Eleanor Roosevelt to be local coroner and obituary writer.   Although  she and Jack, a.k.a. The Grim Reaper, complete with scythe and the latest detective skills, haf traced the old-lady murders to Mr. Spizz, who vanished before justice could be served, it seems Mrs. Volker is not out of a job after all. When a long-forgotten Norvelt expatriate, Mrs. Custer, returns to her old house, she, too, is dispatched by a Halloween cookie laced with the same poison that killed the others.

Jack, costumed for Halloween as Mr. Spizz and sporting a  schnozz just like Spizz's (sculpted from cadaver-wax by Bunny, the undertaker's daughter), witnesses Mrs. Custer nibbling the tainted Girl Scout cookie and falls under suspicion from the local police,  but  Jack and Miss. Volker are sure that the murderer is Spizz, with a peculiarly romantic motive.  More than a half-century ago, Miss Volker swore to  Spizz that she would only marry him when she was the last founding lady alive,  and now, with the sudden death of the newly-returned Mrs. Custer, she is convinced that Spizz has again resorted to murder to force her into keeping her promise of matrimony.

But with a new mystery to resolve, Volker's spunk returns after its brief funk. With the zeal of her idol, Eleanor Roosevelt, in her eyes, she proclaims that she and Jack have a special mission:
"A great moment of clarity has saved me.  I'm going to track down that thick-skulled white whale and then I'm going to kill him.  I'll be his Captain Ahab."
"But didn't Moby Dick kill Ahab?" I suggested delicately because she was so worked up.
"Not in my version," she squalled. "In my version I'm Mrs. Captain Ahab and I jam my ivory peg leg right down Moby Dick's blowhole.  Sometimes it takes a woman to get the job done properly." She gave me a severe look that squelched what I was about to say.
"Don't you dare feel bad for wanting to knock off Spizz," she commanded.  "He deserves Old Testament justice--an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth."

So Miss Volker sets out on quest that out road-trips anything  Hollywood has to offer, with twelve-year-old Jack at the wheel of a battered VW Beetle with "Runs Great" painted on the windshield and Miss Volker armed with a pistol and a harpoon with a length of rope attached, in a chase story with as many plot twists as the rocky road to Rugby, Tennessee.  The seemingly deranged Volker tracks the elusive Spizz from Eleanor Roosevelt's fresh grave at Hyde Park to Miss Volker's childhood home in the Utopian English village of Rugby, Tennessee, to the swamps of south Florida. But there is a steely and sane method behind Volker's madness, and at the end of their mission, the dearly departed rise from their caskets, the real murderer and his plot to destroy Norvelt are outed, and true love conquers all, in Jack Gantos' long-awaited,  wildly wacky, comic, and dead serious sequel to his Newbery Award-winning  Dead End in Norvelt (see review here).

In that review I said, "Gantos' novels are like no other, filled with drop-dead wacky fun, seemingly chaotic, but somehow pulling themselves together brilliantly, like kaleidoscope glass which suddenly falls into a meaningful and beautiful pattern as it turns. Serious and hilarious, fast-paced yet reflective, untidy but emerging as solid coming-of-age story, this novel easily takes its place within Gantos' formidable body of work." Those words equally describe the just-published From Norvelt to Nowhere (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013), a not-to-be-missed novel for Gantos fans and all middle readers who like an out-of-the-box read that revels in and reveals the Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy of the human personality.

"Gantos’s sequel to his Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt offers less history, more murder, and another hefty helping of zaniness," says Publishers Weekly succinctly.

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