Monday, April 9, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt, this year's Newbery winner by Jack Gantos, is full of fascinating historical facts, surprises and humor. It's an especially enlightening read for  writers interested in the study of comic middle grade characters. Comic Characters such as Bud in Christopher Paul Curtis' Bud Not Buddy, and Zinkoff in Jerry Spinelli's Loser, all have something in common. They have their own comic view of the world and an indomitable will to get what they want, both taken to the limit for comic effect. Comic characters also, if they are main characters, have flaws that endear us to them.

Physical ailments can be quirky, entertaining flaws and Gantos uses such flaws effectively

Jack, the eleven year old protagonist suffers from nosebleeds. He tells us "I was a  nose bleeder. The moment something startled me or whenever I got overexcited or spooked about any little thing blood would spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames."

His nose bleeds inconveniently and often.

Of course, flaws aren't funny if they are life threatening, so the author lets us know early that Jack has nothing serious, only fragile little capillaries in his nose. The treatment for his nosebleeds is to have the blood vessels in his nose cauterized, or burned. Unfortunately, Jack's family can't afford the doctor, so Jack has no choice but to suffer the embarrassment.

Another character with a quirky ailment is old Mrs. Volker, a neighbor and retired nurse, local coroner and obituary writer. She suffers from arthritis, her hands "curled over like the talons of a hawk." But one doesn't worry about Mrs. Volker because she is so capable and keeps her hands limber by frequent soaking in hot wax.

Sometimes two flaws together, such as Jack's nosebleeds and Mrs. Volker's arthritis, can fuel funny scenes, as when Mrs. Volker decides to fix Jack's nosebleed problem. Her plan is to heat up a hot wire, hold it in her claw hands and stick it up his nose.

"Are you sure it will work?" Jack asks Mrs. Volker. She gives a convincing reply:

"These hands have delivered babies," she stated. "I've stitched up miles of gaping woods and set a hundred broken bones and pulled a gallon jar full of rotten teeth--I even had to pop an eyeball back into its socket, so don't question me. Now get onto the table."

Who would refuse the hot wire in the hands of Mrs. Volker?

I love the over the top humor in Gantos' novel, full of comic characters doing what they must and never giving up.

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