This is supposed to be a middle grade novel, but I enjoyed it immensely myself. It provides a look back on the early Sixties from a young boy’s point of view, and I didn’t feel it was too simplistic for an adult in the least. I listened in the car (the author reads it himself) and often found myself laughing out loud and repeating anecdotes later to my husband as if it were about a boy we both knew.
The book is touted as semi-autobiographical, sharing with us one memorable summer in 1962 for 11 year-old Jack Gantos, who was grounded for almost the entire period. The only time he was allowed out was to help an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Volker, who composed the local obituaries. As it turned out, Jack got out quite a bit, since all the old ladies in town were dying mysteriously.
Mrs. Volker likes to combine her obituaries with history lessons, so we learn a lot about “this day in history” along with Jack, and how the lessons of the past apply to the present. We also learn about the irony of Jack’s particular situation in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, where people were caught up in taking advantage of the opportunities of capitalism while constantly reviling the threat of the “Commies.” The funny part was that Norvelt (named for EleaNOR RooseVELT) is a real town that was created during the depression by the US government as a model “socialist” community, intended to increase the standard of living of laid-off coal miners.
It is hard not to get caught up in Jack’s enthusiasm as he gets excited over all that he is learning, and when he begins an amateur sleuthing effort to solve the mystery of the rash of deaths in the town. By the end of the summer, he has learned some great lessons about life, and won our hearts as well.
Evaluation: This is a joyous book that will appeal to kids of all ages, including the adult kind.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, 2011