Eleven-year-old Jack Gantos lives in the dying town of Norvelt, located in western Pennsylvania. It is early summer in 1962. Jack is outside, watching a war movie on the television in the house through Japanese camouflage binoculars. The binoculars are part of his father's vintage collection of war memorabilia acquired when, as a young conscript, he came across the bodies of Japanese soldiers lying in a bunker. Jack's Uncle Will was also a soldier; Jack's mother says that the army changed him from a "nice kid" to a "confused jerk." Uncle Will keeps an Indian pony on the Gantos property; he has painted the animal's body with large orange and white circles to make him look like he is "getting ready to battle General Custer."
Mom comes out to inform Jack that Miss Volker, an eccentric neighbor, has requested for him to be at her house early the next morning to help on a project. When she leaves, Jack turns his attention back to the movie, playfully picking up an old sniper rifle which is also part of Dad's collection. After removing the ammunition clip, he trains the rifle's sights on the television screen, aiming at the "enemy." Pulling the trigger, he is shocked when the gun discharges violently.
Mom sprints out of the house to find Jack covered in blood. Fortunately, the offending liquid is coming only from his nose. Jack is a nosebleeder, and when he is overexcited, blood "spray[s] out of his nose holes like dragon flames." An ambulance drives up to Miss Volker's house down the way, and for a moment, Jack is afraid that the stray bullet has killed her. To his relief, Mom informs him that the sound of the blast only caused the old lady to drop her hearing aid down the toilet. She called the plumber for help; in a town as small as Norvelt, the plumber serves as the ambulance driver as well.
As a punishment for playing with his father's gun, Mom sends Jack to his room, to be grounded...
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Jack's favorite article in the newspaper is a daily column of facts titled "This Day in History." The entries were written by Miss Volker "ages ago," before her hands were rendered useless by arthritis. According to Jack's mother, the newspaper just repeats the columns every year, which works out well, because "history does not really change."
After breakfast, Mom sends Jack out to cut the weeds in the gutter, but the family is soon penalized for not following community laws. As Jack labors, Mr. Spizz, who enforces the rules, stops by, riding a ludicrous adult-size tricycle and towing a red wagon full of Sunday dinners for the needy. Mr. Spizz announces that he will return later to check on the weeds, and Jack recalls that his father thinks that Mr. Spizz is "cracked."
Jack finishes with the weeds and stacks them in the gutter to haul away later. Unfortunately, he gets sidetracked and the family receives a three-dollar ticket for "weed obstruction of gutter water." Jack hides the ticket under his mattress, knowing that he will have to figure out how to pay it without his parents' knowledge. He then goes out to do the one chore he enjoys: mowing the lawn with the tractor.
While he is engaged in this task, Dad, who has returned from his business trip, comes out and makes a startling request. Pointing to the patch of fresh corn that Mom has planted to make money for the charity dinners she cooks, he orders his son to mow it down. Knowing that Mom will be furious, Jack protests, but Dad is unyielding. With an inexorable sense of doom, he proceeds to do as he is told.
As expected, Mom comes running out of the house when she sees what Jack is doing. Planting herself in front of the tractor, she demands to know what is going on. Just then, Dad comes out of the garage where he keeps "all his secret stuff," and tells Mom that he needs the...
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Jack's best friend Bunny is "the size of one of Santa's little helpers." Her real name is Stella Huffer, and her father owns the funeral parlor. Jack thinks that Bunny is "better than any guy" because she is "tough, smart, [and] daring."
Due to her father's occupation, Bunny knows about "a million dead person jokes," but Jack, in contrast, is terrified by the subject of death. Determined to help Jack overcome his fear, Bunny had once arranged to have him touch a dead body at her father's place of employment. Sadly, her experiment was unsuccessful and Jack had run from the room panic-stricken, humiliated, and with blood streaming from his nose.
When Jack arrives at baseball practice and tells Bunny about his father's plans to build a bomb shelter and a landing strip, she observes that the whole plan "sounds nuts." While they are talking, Jack spots his mother riding her bicycle up the road in his direction. He runs toward second base in a desperate attempt to escape, but to his utter mortification, Mom nabs him, and, with her hand firmly clamped on the back of his neck, marches him off the field. When they arrive home, she informs him that he is now grounded for the entire summer. In a cowardly attempt to shift the blame for his actions away from himself, Jack whimpers that his father had made him cut down the corn. Mom's rage is not palliated by this admission however, and she threatens darkly that she will first make Dad "cut [Jack] down to size," and then wreak vengeance on them both.
Two days later, Jack's father comes into his room and reprimands him for violating the rules of gun safety in shooting off the Japanese rifle. While he is talking, Jack reminisces about the first time he had gone hunting with Dad. On the first day of deer season last November, they had gone out in the early morning darkness to "get the jump on the other hunters."...
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While reading about Hernan Cortes' conquest of Mexico, Jack notes that the atrocities committed presage Pizarro's destruction of the Inca civilization a short time later. He concludes that the "big lesson" Pizarro learned from history was that "it was okay to kill innocent people and steal their gold." The writer of the book Jack is reading calls Cortes a "great man." Jack remembers that Miss Volker had once cautioned that he should "be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors."
Mom comes into Jack's room and orders him to put on some "respectable" clothes. She then walks him over to Dr. Mertz' office and tries to persuade the physician to cauterize the inside of Jack's nasal passages so that he will not bleed so frequently. By her manner, Jack knows that his mother had hoped that the doctor would perform the procedure free of charge, but instead, the physician quotes her a price. Mom asks if he will accept homemade jarred fruit or pickles as payment, but to her disappointment, he will not.
On the way home, Mom complains about how the town has changed. In the "old days," people could trade goods for the things that they needed to sustain themselves. It occurs to Jack that today, people "want gold just like Pizarro and Cortes and just about everyone else." As they walk along the street, Mom uncharacteristically kisses her son on the forehead, and the two enjoy a lighthearted exchange. Jack is still grounded, however, and Mom tells him that "not even cash can buy away [his] trouble."
A few days later, Miss Volker calls the house again to request Jack's help. She has just learned that another Norvelt original might have passed away and wants to investigate. The person in question, Mrs. Dubicki, has not been seen for a week. Miss Volker orders Jack to take her over to the Dubicki residence, where, if nothing can be seen from the...
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Dad comes into Jack's room one morning and invites him to "escape" his exile for awhile. Jack is at first elated, but his enthusiasm is squashed when he discovers that his father wants him to spend the day digging a hole in the ground for the bomb shelter. Pensively, Jack asks his father which he thinks is more deadly—past history or future history? Without hesitation, Dad replies, "future history," because each war that is fought becomes more deadly as humankind "gets better at killing each other."
Mom comes out with some cold water for Dad and Jack as they labor under the sun. She offers to get some men from the Community Center to help with the digging, but Dad declines,...
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Jack begins another boring summer day with a breakfast of peanut butter-covered Nilla Wafers. As usual, he reads his favorite newspaper column, "This Day in History." Today, the article ironically talks about both the death of the Inca-exterminator, Francisco Pizarro, and a charter signed by the United Nations, pledging peace around the world. Sadly, the reality is that millions have continued to die in wars started after the pact.
After breakfast, Jack peruses a copy of John F. Kennedy and PT-109, a book about the nation's president. Jack is intrigued by the story of Kennedy's heroic efforts to save his shipwrecked crew after their torpedo boat is hit by a Japanese...
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Jack's birthday falls on the first Sunday in July; he is turning twelve. Mom gets him the one gift he has asked for: a tin of industrial-strength grease remover that will clean bloodstains and airplane oil off of everything, including the circles Uncle Will has painted on his Indian pony, War Chief. Mom tells Jack that she has called a farrier over to trim the horse's hooves. She teasingly tells her son that she tried to barter Jack's services as an apprentice to the tradesman in exchange for the work, but, as expected, the farrier was willing to work for cash only.
When Dad arrives, Mom explains that it is "the old Norvelt way" to give three gifts on a person's...
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Reading the house obituary, Mom is saddened; she comments that Miss Volker should do what she longs to do and just leave Norvelt to live with her sister in Florida. When Jack reminds her about the old woman's promise to Mrs. Roosevelt to remain in town until the last original Norvelter has passed away, Dad comes by and remarks cryptically that his "new top secret job" will leave "no town to nurse."
Later, as Jack is working on the bomb shelter, Mr. Spizz arrives. He intimates that he will make trouble for Dad regarding the construction of his runway unless Jack gets a tin of 1080 poison for him to use to kill vermin over at the dump. Mr. Spizz says that he cannot go on the errand...
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Complaining that Jack has done nothing with her the whole summer, Bunny demands that he prove his friendship by finding a way to play baseball with her and the team later that day. Jack talks to his mother and trades his birthday ticket for a ride in his father's airplane in exchange for the freedom to go out and play. Sadly, as he runs over to the baseball field with Bunny, he hears Miss Volker calling to him; he cannot ignore her.
Miss Volker excitedly tells Jack and Bunny that Mrs. Linga, another Norvelt original, has passed away. The three pile into the car and head for Mrs. Linga's house so that Miss Volker can examine the body. Mr. Huffer has beaten them there; he asserts...
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Jack calls Bunny every day for the next four days, but she will not talk to him. She finally relents on the fifth day, demanding with exasperation, "Do you know who put the bullet in your rifle?" Jack counters her question by asking why her father is buying and moving the Norvelt houses to West Virginia. Bunny replies that, although it is a secret, she will tell him if he will meet her that night at ten o'clock, past the school where she and some of the other Girl Scouts will be on patrol to prevent the Hells Angels from torching any more houses.
Jack makes a decision "that almost [gets] him killed forever." He sneaks out of the house after his mother is asleep and meets Bunny, as...
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Miss Volker summons Jack to her house again, only this time no one has died. She sends him over to Girl Scout Mertie-Jo's house to buy more cookies. Mertie-Jo is elated because earlier that day, she had sold cookies to Mr. Spizz and Mr. Huffer. Miss Volker is now buying all that she has left.
Jack delivers the cookies to Miss Volker's house and does odd-jobs around the place because he does not want to go home. The telephone rings, and he answers it; it is Mr. Huffer, who reports that Mrs. Hamsby, another Norvelt original, has died and that if Miss Volker wishes to examine the body, she should get to the funeral parlor "on the double." Mr. Huffer says that Mrs. Hamsby died of...
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Jack is worried that his father might have given old Mrs. Vinyl a heart attack with his airplane shenanigans, but Miss Volker assures him that she had spoken with Mrs. Vinyl the day after the incident, just after the woman had enjoyed one of Mom's casseroles. Nonetheless, she is concerned enough to ask Jack to take her to pay a visit. The two arrive at the house to find that Mrs. Vinyl has indeed died. Mr. Huffer is already at the scene; he had learned about the woman's passing from Mr. Spizz, who had stopped by to collect her newspaper payment. Miss Volker complains that someone is selling the vacant Norvelt houses to Eleanor, West Virginia, and when Mr. Huffer comments, "Nothing lasts...
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The next day, the editor of the newspaper prints an article calling for an investigation into the rash of old lady deaths that has plagued the town. Miss Volker takes personally the suggestion that something sinister is going. She asserts that the ladies in question were all of "advanced age" and died "by natural causes"; she further argues that their passing is not nearly as much of a problem as is the destruction of Norvelt's history.
Mom, on the other hand, has quite a different reaction to the newspaper editorial. She fears that she has contributed to the ladies' deaths by inadvertently using poison mushrooms in their casseroles. When Dad and Jack convince her that this cannot...
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Mom goes off to the woods one morning to gather raspberries. She feels sorry for Miss Volker, who is under house arrest, and plans to make her a tart. Jack is reading the newspaper in the kitchen when he hears a rifle shot. He runs outside to find a small deer standing dazed in the backyard, with blood running from a wound in its neck.
Mom comes crashing out of the woods, hollering for Jack to fetch the Japanese rifle. A man in a black ski mask is right behind her, aiming his own gun at the wounded deer. As his mother steps between the man and the deer, Jack hurries to the garage but cannot find the rifle. He takes a long Japanese sword instead and gives it to his mother. Mom uses...
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