What’s an eleven-year-old boy to do if he’s grounded for the entire summer? It’s tough being at home all day, especially with parents who are constantly spatting. Jack’s father hates the town of Norvelt and wants to move elsewhere. His mother is devoted to the senior citizens of the town, and cannot imagine living anywhere else. She grows corn, which she then sells to make money for her casseroles-to-the-elderly meals. When Jack’s father tells him to get out the tractor and mow down Mom’s corn field so that he can make a bomb shelter to hide from the “Commies” if needed, Mom goes ballistic. In her desperation to divert Jack to something other than helping build an underground bunker, she arranges for him to help one of their elderly neighbors, Miss Volker, for the summer.
Miss Volker is the town historian, and she faithfully writes the obituary of anyone in town who dies. But her hands are so crippled with arthritis that she needs a helper at home and a scribe. So Jack becomes her right-hand man. At first he is squeamish about death, but as the summer goes on, he comes to understand it as part of life. In the end, Jack becomes just as fanatical as Miss Volker in making sure that each of Norvelt’s citizens are given a glorious write-up in the newspaper upon their passing.
I love the 1960s flavor that oozes from this novel. The hysteria of the Russian threat. Women taking care of the elderly in the community. Kids being allowed to roam around town unsupervised. The small-town newspaper that everyone reads. The old folks who remember when Eleanor Roosevelt helped to start the town during the Great Depression. (Note: Mrs. Roosevelt did help to build the actual model town of Norvelt.)
The book is categorized as juvenile fiction, but it’s really not suitable for kids to read because of things we don’t want them to try doing. Like Jack driving around Miss Volker’s car with no driver’s license. Or Jack’s friend sneaking him into the local funeral parlor to see a dead person for the first time. Or kids buying rat poison at the hardware store and sprinkling it on top of cookies. Also, the theme of death and dying that permeates the book makes it more suited for teens and adults. Despite the seriousness, there is enough humor in this novel to make it a fine read.