I made it to page 12 of Dead End in Norvelt before I was giggling so loudly that my family made me stop and read aloud to them. You may not get that far.
Jack Gantos writes two kinds of books: good books and great books. (Also Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, which might be either, but which is so spectacularly weird that it's hard to tell.) Dead End in Norvelt is one of the great ones, for sure. It concerns an eleven-year-old boy named Jack Gantos who lives in a New Deal planned community in Western PA in 1962. He is a kid who likes "history or real-life adventure books, mostly," a mostly-good boy with frequent nosebleeds, an active imagination, and a knack for getting blamed for stuff that is not entirely his fault.
Jack's parents are a lot of fun to read, too. His mom, a Norvelt native, is kept pretty busy making ends meet. She's a Roosevelt Democrat, a socialist with a small 's' - she believes in barter, social safety nets, and collective labor. She collects mushrooms in the forest and grows corn in the Gantos family field so that she can make meals for Norvelt's older citizens. Dad is a World War II veteran whose belief in free enterprise is at odds with his wife's ideals. He's not wrong, exactly - Norvelt is dying, both figuratively and literally, and he has to travel to find construction work.
Hazel and Frank in 1962.
Jack is a little bit of a pawn between these two - his dad orders him to mow down his mom's corn to make room for a bomb shelter, and mom grounds him for the entire summer. Listening to them argue, we get a pretty good picture of mid-twentieth-century middle-class tension. My father's parents (above, washing windows) enjoyed much the same dynamic, although I'm pretty sure my dad played them like a flute, and not the opposite.
The rest of the human characters, most of them elderly, are a hoot. There's Mr. Spizz, the town busybody, who rides around town on an adult tricycle giving people citations for untidy yards; Mr. Greene, the editor of the town paper; and Miss Volker, Jack's neighbor and his only ticket out of being grounded. Miss Volker has severely arthritic hands, and Jack is called upon to help her in various ways - thus, we get an eleven-year-old kid driving a car, sweeping up dead rats, and poking old ladies to see if they're dead or not.
However, the non-human characters are interesting in this book too. Chief among them is the fictional town of Norvelt. The New Deal planned towns were meant to be starter kits for unemployed miners, laborers, and farmers. They were a pet project of Eleanor Roosevelt, who made sure that the houses would be comfortable and modern and that the towns would be populated with people with necessary skills. Norvelt is written with such understated precision that in the first chapter or so of this book, even before Mr. Gantos placed it in geographic context, I had a very specific mental picture of the town. I envisioned the small houses and quiet streets of Brownsville, Pennsylvania - my father-in-law's hometown south of Pittsburgh, a mining town, now nearly empty, on the Monongahela River.
Dead End in Norvelt is historical fiction set in a place and time that I don't think we've seen in kids' fiction, although the mid-century American small town is often the setting of movies and TV shows. Jack seems to remember it so clearly - his writing is always distinguished by a beautiful transparency, his characters holding nothing back from the reader, even if they are being less than truthful to everyone else. While reading it, I kept asking my parents if they remembered 1962 the same way.
One of my grandfathers was from PA mining country too. By the time I came along, the only family left in those parts were two ancient great-aunts, one in Pottsville and one in Minersville, one batty, one mean. You wouldn't believe the stories. Read Dead End in Norvelt and you'll get some idea.