Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
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...
(The entire section contains 9747 words.)
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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 at least until Dad returns home from a business trip. There, Jack, who likes history and adventure books, reads about Pizarro's conquest of the Incas in Peru. He finds it tragic that, because the conquistadors were blinded by their lust for gold, a whole civilization was destroyed.
Jack reports to Miss Volker's house the next morning at six as directed. On her porch he notices a heart-shaped box of chocolates left by Edwin Spizz, the "town busybody" who has been courting the lady for fifty years. Inside the house, Miss Volker, an ancient woman with a formidable mind, greets Jack effusively. She is engaged in the macabre task of boiling her twisted, arthritic hands in hot wax "to get them working for about fifteen minutes."
A large needlepoint map of Norvelt as it looked at the time of its founding covers an entire wall in Miss Volker's kitchen. The city was made up of two-hundred-fifty houses organized in neat sections, and Miss Volker has promised Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt herself that she would write the obituaries for each of the original families, until they are all gone. Mrs. Emma Deavers Slater, one of the few remaining original Norvelters, has just passed away. Miss Volker will write her obituary, with Jack serving as her scribe.
Miss Volker composes a factual and complimentary summation of the deceased's life and accomplishments, and when she is finished, continues on to her favorite part of the obit, where she adds information designed to keep "some important ideas...alive." With unbridled passion, the feisty lady notes that Emma Devers Slater died on the same day as Wat Tyler, "the heroic leader of the English Peasants' Revolt" who was killed in 1381 for fighting for "equality between peasants...the Royalty and the Church." In answer to Jack's question about the relevance of this section, Miss Volker says that Tyler's story relates to Norvelt's situation because the town is populated by common people who "share the same history of being kicked around by the rich." When the obit is complete, she directs Jack to copy the draft on her ancient Royal typewriter, and deliver it to the office of the Norvelt News for immediate publication.
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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 area cleared to build a bomb shelter for protection against "whatever bomb attack" the "Russian Commies" plan to launch in the near future. After arguing briefly, Mom stalks back to the house, warning Jack that he had better not dare to destroy the rest of the corn. When she leaves, Dad tells Jack to finish the job, then meet him in the garage.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Jack envisions his impending death at the hands of his mother as blood flows out of his nose. He remembers a conversation he had overheard between his parents the night before. Dad had reiterated his dream of leaving Norvelt, which he calls a "dirt-poor Commie town that is dying out," to settle in Florida. Mom had countered by saying that Norvelt was not a "Commie town," but a place "set up to give hard-working people a helping hand." Dad had finally conceded that while her opinion had validity, he only wanted to get ahead in the world and that Norvelt was a "dead end."
Jack finishes leveling the corn, and then flees to the garage where his father is waiting. Inside, Dad proudly shows him a small plane on a trailer, with parts of it laid carefully out on the floor. It is an army surplus J-3, and in reality, it is not a bomb shelter that Dad is interested in making, but a runway, so that he can fly away in the plane, "anywhere...at any time." Their conversation ceases when Mom comes around looking for Jack, threatening to tell Dad about the incident with the Japanese rifle the other night. As blood runs from his nose again, Jack asks Dad in a hushed whisper if he can borrow the baseball glove hanging on a nail in the garage so that he can go to practice. Dad hands his son the glove and spirits him out the back door, warning, "I'll cover your butt, but you better tell me about the Jap stuff when you get back." Running as fast as he can, Jack makes his way to the baseball fields by the Roosevelt Community Center to meet his friend, Bunny Huffer.
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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." Along the way, Dad had given him a rudimentary lesson on gun safety and had emphasized that in order to get close enough to a deer to shoot it, there was to be complete silence: "no sneezing...no coughing...no farting." According to Dad, passing gas in particular would scare away a potential victim, as deer have "very sensitive noses and ears."
Dad and Jack had settled in their deer-spotting tree house, and before long a beautiful white-tailed deer had appeared. Jack had known in an instant that he did not want the majestic creature to die. As his father had prepared to fire, Jack had emitted a small, slightly squeaky stream of gas. The deer promptly vanished and Dad knew immediately what his son had done.
Surprisingly, Dad was not really angry at what his son; understanding that Jack had no stomach for killing, he cut the hunt short and took him home. Along the way, the two ran into a truckload of drunken hunters from the Norvelt Gun Club. Calling the revelers "the real knuckleheads," Dad told Jack, "No matter what you do in life, never drink and use guns and drive!"
Jack's father finishes his lecture by asking his son if he has anything to say for himself. Jack promises sincerely that he didn't know that there had been a bullet in the chamber of the Japanese rifle and his father comments that "something doesn't add up," wondering who could have loaded the gun if neither of them had done it. Dad then pauses, and a look of melancholy comes over his face. Recalling his experiences during the war, he tells Jack that the biggest problem for soldiers is actually "having to shoot another person you could look in the eye," and he warns his son, "Don't ever go to war. Even if you win, the battle is never over inside you."
Dad tells Jack that he believes he didn't know the Japanese rifle was loaded, but says that he should not have been playing with it in the first place. He informs his son that he is still grounded for the summer, but adds that he may soon be joining him in exile, as Mom is pretty irate about the situation with the plane and her corn.
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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 windows, he will have to sneak inside to determine the condition of the resident. So that he will not be recognized, Miss Volker suggests that Jack wear a disguise. Fittingly, the only costume he owns is one of the Grim Reaper.
Jack has never driven a car before, but Miss Volker insists that he take the wheel of her old Plymouth Valiant. After a madcap ride, the two somehow arrive safely at Mrs. Dubicki's house. The windows are covered with old blackout curtains dating back to World War II, so Miss Volker orders Jack to don his costume and come back with a detailed report of his findings. Reluctantly, he opens the unlocked front door of the house and makes his way down a dark hallway. Noticing a dim light coming from one of the interior doors, he heads over that way, opens the door, and enters the room. There, Jack finds Mrs. Dubicki slumped in a recliner in front of the television, which is showing the Pittsburgh news. The woman is so still that Jack at first thinks she is dead, but when he pokes her tentatively with his scythe, she suddenly sits straight up, nearly scaring him to death. Mrs. Dubicki is not at all surprised to see the Grim Reaper in her house, and invites him to stay for tea. She then asks if he might postpone taking her so that she can wrap up her business, say her goodbyes, and celebrate her grandson's birthday, which is in two weeks. Completely discomfited by the situation, Jack says that he will check his schedule, backs out of the room, and runs back to the car as fast as he can.
Miss Volker is annoyed that Jack has taken so long to return, and is even more chagrined when she learns that Mrs. Dubicki is not dead. She is amused, however, when he tells her about the old woman's hospitable reception of the Grim Reaper and says that she will be sure to include that in Mrs. Dubicki's obituary when she really dies. On the drive home, Miss Volker notices that Jack's nose is bleeding again, and promises to fix it for him with some tools that she purchased at a veterinarian's yard sale.
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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, saying that he'd rather keep the project "in the family." A short time later, Bunny comes running over with some exciting news. A visiting Hells Angels motorcyclist had been inexplicably dancing in the middle of the road earlier in the day and had been run over by a cement truck; his mangled body has just been delivered to the funeral parlor.
News travels fast in a small town like Norvelt, and it is not long before Miss Volker calls to ask Jack to take her to the mortuary so that she can examine the body. Jack dutifully drives her to Huffer Funeral Parlor, where the stranger's gory remains have been scooped onto an examining table. Bunny is there and excitedly describes the dead man's lurid tattoos. Jack becomes queasy and must leave the room. On the way back to her house, Miss Volker muses about what she will write for the motorcyclist's obituary. She is especially intrigued by the fact that, before his untimely death, the man had been seen "dancing a jig" all the way across town. This odd phenomenon reminds her "of some convulsive condition [she] read about once," and she vows to research the matter.
Early the next morning, Jack hurries over the Miss Volker's house to help with the Hells Angel's obituary, but when he arrives, he finds that the old woman has other plans. She has decided to fix Jack's nose before doing anything else and orders him to take her to the drugstore to get supplies for the operation. While they are there, they run into Mr. Spizz. The disagreeable man and Miss Volker exchange pointed verbal barbs. Later, Mr. Spizz tells Jack that he knows about the runway his father is building and that he has already issued a zoning violation against him and submitted it to the Community Council.
On the way back to her house, Miss Volker explains the enmity which is so evident between herself and Mr. Spizz. The two had dated before Norvelt was built. Mr. Spizz had wanted to get married, but Miss Volker had held him off. In a moment of weakness, she had made the mistake of promising that she would marry him "when all of the original Norvelters were dead and [her] duty to Mrs. Roosevelt was over." Miss Volker had figured that her unwanted beau would have died by now, but unfortunately, he is still going strong.
The operation on Jack's nose goes surprisingly well. Afterwards, the two work on the dead motorcyclist's obituary. When it is done, Miss Volker sends her helper out to the garage to get a rusty tin of Compound 1080 poison so that she can exterminate some vermin in her basement. Jack hurries home to deliver a batch of his mother's casseroles to Mr. Spizz, who in turn will distribute them to the needy aged in the community. Reading the name tags on the dishes, he notices that the recipients are all women; their spouses, who had been miners, had all died early from black lung disease.
At the Roosevelt Community Center, where Mr. Spizz lives in a basement room, Jack runs into Bunny and two of her friends, who are attending a Girl Scout meeting. When one of the girls, Mertie-Jo, asks Jack if he would like to buy some cookies, he refers her to Miss Volker, who "lives off of cookies." Mr. Spizz appears and takes the meals that Jack has brought. As he leaves with them, he reminds the boy that the money for the weed ticket is due. Jack asks if he will take jars of peaches in payment, but the answer is no. Jack will have to come up with the cash or face the wrath of his mother.
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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 destroyer during World War II. Kennedy served in the Solomon Islands during the war, the same place where Jack's father fought. Jack finds that he is proud to be an American.
In the obituary for the Hells Angels motorcyclist, which appears in the newspaper the next day, Miss Volker recounts how the stranger had spontaneously begun dancing down the road and had met his macabre end when he was flattened by a cement truck. She then goes on to describe a phenomenon known as the "dancing plague," which has afflicted populations throughout history. Miss Volker suggests that the plague has demonic origins and warns that deadly evil has arrived at the doorstep of Norvelt.
Just as Jack is finishing reading the obit, a swarm of motorcyclists roars past the house; the Hells Angels have come to Norvelt to retrieve the body of their fallen comrade. After a short time, the cyclists return, heading back the way they had come. Strapped on one of their sidecars is a coffin which looks like a silver torpedo.
Bunny Huffer comes running up the road in the wake of the noisy procession. She tells Jack that the Hells Angels made her father pull the body of the dead man out of the freezer and then stole a coffin. Mr. Spizz, the "volunteer cop," has been called, and it is not long before the man is seen pedaling his tricycle laboriously up the road in hot pursuit of the motorcycle gang, a ludicrous sight. Bunny relates that the "dead guy" had bought an empty Norvelt house and was planning to turn it into a Hells Angels clubhouse; rumor has it that he was killed to prevent this from happening. Before the gang left, the leader had put "a devilish curse" on the town to avenge the death of their "brother."
On Thursday afternoon, Jack receives an urgent call from Miss Volker, commanding him to come over right away. Her basement is filled with dead vermin; the Compound 1080 poison, sprinkled liberally on pieces of Valentine chocolates from the dreaded Mr. Spizz, has done its job. Miss Volker directs Jack to sweep up the scattered bodies and put them into a box to be buried later. She then tells Jack to bag up some Girl Scout cookies so that they can be added to the casseroles his mother cooks for the "old folks."
Jack compliments Miss Volker for her largess in taking care of the needy aged, but the woman frankly declares that, deep inside, she wishes they would all "drop dead" so that her duty to Eleanor Roosevelt will be over. When Jack reminds her that she would then have to marry Mr. Spizz, Miss Volker wistfully says that, if he were a gentleman, Mr. Spizz would just let her off the hook and let her go live with her sister in Florida. Miss Volker laments that Norvelt is in trouble because the old people "just hang on and on . . . [and] don't do anything for the community." She believes that unless young families start to move into the area, the town is destined to "drop dead and vanish from history."
After Jack has bagged about a dozen servings of cookies, Miss Volker sends him off to deliver them. As he leaves, she tells him not to let Mr. Spizz eat any of the treats; they are for the old ladies. Jack volunteers to dispose of the dead rodents while he is out, and Miss Volker ominously advises him not to plant anything over the place where he buries them, because "they got enough poison in 'em to bring down an elephant."
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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 birthday—good, better and best. The good gift is something useful, so she and Dad have gotten Jack a shovel and three cotton dish towels. The better gift is "a deed you do because . . . [it] makes you a better person." With this in mind, Dad and Mom have arranged for Jack to volunteer at a nearby hospital, reading to patients who cannot read for themselves.
The best gift is something that fits the recipient best. Dad hands Jack an envelope with three handmade tickets in it. The first ticket will allow him to be "un-grounded" for twenty-four hours, the second ticket will let him take one flight in Dad's airplane, and the third ticket will admit him to a double feature at the local drive-in theater. In addition, Mom and Dad have decided that Jack should have an allowance. Jack reacts with delight when he hears he will have an allowance because now he will be able to save the money to pay for the weed ticket before his parents find out about it.
Miss Volker calls and asks Jack to drive her to church. Along the way, she tells him that, as a birthday gift, she will be giving him her car after she dies. When they arrive at the church, Miss Volker goes to sit with the "old folks" in front, while Jack remains by himself in the back. Jack finds that he is happy at church, because he can use his imagination and make the preacher's words come to life. As he listens to the sermon, Jack envisions heaven as an idyllic place completely free of worry. He reflects that his Dad dreams of buying a little piece of heaven in Florida, while his mother thinks that Norvelt is "heaven on earth." For Jack, heaven is simply "everything good [he can] imagine."
That night, after Jack has gone to bed, he again hears the roar of the Hells Angels motorcycles heading toward the center of Norvelt. A short time later, a piercing whistle summoning the volunteer fire department goes off; a house beyond the Community Center is ablaze, and Dad hurries off to join the others in putting out the fire. Mom asks Jack to fetch his father's Japanese camouflage binoculars, and peering through them, she determines that the burning house is the one that once belonged to Miss Volker's sister. Miss Volker had sold it to the Hells Angel cyclist who had recently been killed by the cement truck, and the victim's comrades had vowed to avenge his death.
As expected, Miss Volker summons Jack early the next morning. When he arrives at her house, he notices a half-dozen charred plants in ceramic pots deposited by her door. A card has been left among the wreckage; it is, of course, from Mr. Spizz, who apologizes that these blackened items are all he had been able to salvage from the conflagration.
Inside the house, Jack finds Miss Volker wrapped in a knitted afghan sitting on the couch, crying. In a subdued tone, she asks Jack to write a "different kind of obituary," one for a house. Reverently, she declares that Mrs. Roosevelt had arranged for houses like her sister's to be built so that poor people could live with dignity. She then recalls the happy years that her sister had shared with her husband, Chester Hap, in that simple abode.
The Hap home had been a gentle, loving place, but sadly, the couple had been childless. To fill the void, the Haps had adopted a baby from a Japanese couple; tragically, during World War II the government had tracked the infant down and taken him away because of his ancestry. Now, once again, the little house has been the victim of "obscene hatred," this time at the hands of the Hells Angels. Having properly eulogized the ruined house, Miss Volker seems to have regained her fighting spirit, and she sends Jack down to the newspaper office to submit the copy to the editor.
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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 himself because he has hurt his leg; he offers to forgive the cost of the weed ticket, as well, if Jack will help him out. Desperately hoping to avoid his mother's knowing about the weed ticket, Jack runs to the hardware store for Mr. Spizz. The owner makes him sign a log as required by law to obtain the poison. Jack notices that the last person to sign before him is Mr. Huffer. As he hurries home to give the poison to Mr. Spizz, Jack notices that his nose is bleeding again—a bad omen, he feels.
As he had feared, Mom has seen Jack coming out of the hardware store and reprimands him. When Jack readily admits that he had disobeyed her and gone out of the house, however, she softens her tone. She leaves him with an admonition to consider the consequences of lying, to himself and to others.
The next time Jack sees Miss Volker, the woman is elated because another original Norvelt homesteader has died. The deceased is Mrs. Dubicki, whose end has truly come this time. After dictating a lengthy, heartfelt summary of Mrs. Dubicki's life, Miss Volker launches into her usual historical commentary, the part of the obit she likes best. This time, she notes that Mrs. Dubicki died on the day before the anniversaries of the deaths of two other great Americans—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. She observes that beyond the fact that these two men were both American presidents, they were also notable because they were great friends, despite being bitter political enemies. Miss Volker points out that the relationship between Adams and Jefferson reflects the "American way" of focusing not on our differences but on what we have in common. She further expostulates that Mrs. Roosevelt was "especially fond" of the Jeffersonian principle that every American family should have a house and a plot of land so that families might sustain themselves during hard times and that Norvelt was designed to reflect this belief.
After finishing Mrs. Dubicki's obituary, Miss Volker falls into a deep sleep, and Jack types up the copy. As he is about to leave, she awakens and asks him to set out a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies for her to eat for dinner. When he delivers the obit to the newspaper office, the editor compliments him on his typing skills and offers him a job. Jack explains that he is grounded for the summer, but he adds, "Let me see what I can do."
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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 that Mrs. Linga died because of complications from a broken hip. Jack notes that the dead woman is covered with a white sheet and that a partially-eaten casserole and an open bag of Girl Scout cookies are nearby on the kitchen table. When everyone finally leaves the house, Jack and Bunny are anxious to get to their game, but Miss Volker insists they stay with her so that she can dictate Mrs. Linga's obituary.
In the car, Mrs. Volker immediately begins her recitation about the details of the deceased's life. As he is writing, Jack happens to look up just as his father drives by in a flatbed truck, towing a Norvelt house on a double-wide trailer. Dad hollers gleefully that he is taking the house to Eleanor, West Virginia, where investors are paying to add the dwellings "to their own Roosevelt town." When Miss Volker hears what Dad is doing, she is irate; she cries out that he ought to be ashamed of himself for participating in the destruction of Norvelt. Dad counters that he is not destroying anything; he contends that he is "just moving the dead parts of [the] town to a . . . location that's still alive."
Angry that she and Jack are about to miss the game, Bunny hitches a ride with Jack's father, while Jack takes Miss Volker home. There the old woman tells him about Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, "two great American anarchists who wanted to improve the lives of all Americans." The tragic tale, at its core a love story, includes a botched assassination attempt, a prison sentence, and a bungled escape plot. Although Miss Volker admits to Jack that the story would not be an appropriate addition to Mrs. Linga's obituary, the account of the failed quest for freedom leaves them both in a melancholy mood. Jack longs to escape from being grounded, and Miss Volker admits that she would love to get away from her humdrum existence and "live a life of exotic adventure."
Jack mentions to his mother that the editor of the Norvelt News has offered him a job, but Mom refuses to allow him to pursue the opportunity. The summer days stretch on interminably as he spends the majority of his time working on the bomb shelter in the backyard. Bunny comes over one day and says that her father wants Jack to help out at the funeral parlor, cleaning up the embalming room after an especially messy operation. Jack becomes faint just thinking about what the job will entail, and his nose begins to bleed again.
Jack suddenly thinks of something fun that he and Bunny can do that would not get him into trouble. He takes her to his room and proudly shows her an igloo he has made out of all the books he owns. He talks to her about history, which has become his passion, but Bunny is not impressed. Jack tells Bunny that if he could prove that he had not known there was a bullet in the Japanese rifle he had fired, he would be "ungrounded," but he has no idea how to prove his innocence. Exasperated, Bunny stalks out of the house, ignoring Jack's pleas for her to stay.
Dad returns from his out-of-state errand that evening in a jubilant mood. He tells Jack that he has learned "something interesting": the person who is buying up all the vacant Norvelt houses and moving them to West Virginia is Mr. Huffer. Wondering why Bunny's father would do such a thing, Jack calls her, but she hangs up on him.
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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 directed. Bunny tells him that her father is buying the houses and selling them to Eleanor, West Virginia, because it is a bigger town with a larger population; therefore, there are more people who will die, and his funeral parlor business will be more prosperous. When Jack points out that moving the houses is "driving Miss Volker nuts," Bunny nonchalantly responds that "she'll get over it."
As they are talking, Bunny and Jack notice a car headed their way. The vehicle stops at a vacant house, and a Hells Angel gets out and douses the dwelling with gasoline. Bunny stands up and yells at the man, throwing a fist-sized rock. Jack follows her lead; then, as the house bursts into flames, Jack realizes the man is looking right at him, threatening to kill him.
Bunny blows frantically on a silver whistle. She and Jack then take off in different directions, running for their lives. By the time Jack reaches home, the community fire alarm is blaring. Knowing that his mother is awake, he heads to the garage where his father keeps his war memorabilia collection. Jack enters the kitchen carrying the Japanese binoculars and hands them to his mother, who immediately uses them to scan the houses in town. Fortunately, the fire is put out by neighbors before it does any real damage.
Mom never figures out that her wayward son had gone out to meet Bunny on the night of the fire. Jack escapes further punishment at her hands, but the image of the Hells Angel looking at him and threatening him with death remains with Jack. Consequently, he is terrified when a ferocious-looking man riding a motorcycle stops by one day when Jack is working on the bomb shelter. As it turns out, the man is just a farrier who has been commissioned by Mom to trim War Chief's hooves. The farrier asks Jack if Mom is home to pay him for his work; desperate for a chance to escape his summer-long confinement, Jack suggests that he can go with the man as an apprentice, in exchange for services rendered. The man declines the offer good-naturedly, saying he will go down to Mom's place of employment to receive his remuneration when he is finished with the job.
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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 natural causes, and he is in a hurry to cremate her remains.
Miss Volker becomes pensive when she hears about the latest death. She had liked Mrs. Hamsby and hates to see her go, but she believes her passing is "for the better." In her obituary, Miss Volker notes that Mrs. Hamsby had been the first postmistress of Norvelt. The industrious woman had lined the walls of her dwelling with letters that over the years had been returned as undeliverable, thus creating "a library full of abandoned histories." Bitterly, Miss Volker comments that Mrs. Hamsby's unique legacy will probably be lost when Jack's father hauls the house away to West Virginia. Miss Volker says that preserving history is vital because "you never know what small bit of it might change your life—or change the whole world." She cites the case of Anne Frank, whose diary is "one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that [she has] ever read."
When Jack delivers Mrs. Hamsby's obituary to the newspaper office, the editor expresses dismay that so many old ladies "seem to be dropping like flies." Wondering if something sinister is going on, he suggests that someone should look into the matter.
One morning Dad announces that he is finally ready to fly his airplane. Jack begs to be allowed to go along, but since he has traded in his ticket for one ride in the contraption, Mom will not let him. Dad, however, invites him to help get the plane ready, and Jack excitedly participates in the take-off.
Mom and Jack watch from the ground as the plane circles the area; it then comes in low over the house, causing them to "hit the deck." Jack is elated to see how much fun Dad is having, but Mom is furious. Dad flies around a little longer and then begins to dive-bomb one of the vacant houses "like the Japanese did when they bombed Pearl Harbor." He makes several more passes at the house, finally throwing his shoes at it like hand grenades. When Dad lands, he says that he was just "having a little fun" with the house, because he will soon be transporting it to West Virginia. He facetiously declares that next time he will take some water balloons up with him in the plane so that he can enact a bombing raid.
Miss Volker calls to report that Mrs. Vinyl, one of the original Norvelters, is "having a spell" because she thinks that the town is being invaded by the Russians. She asks why Dad is in possession of an airplane, and Jack replies that his father "wants to fly out of town and never come back."
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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 forever," she snaps, "History lasts forever . . . and we'll be judged by our history."
Later, Miss Volker dictates Mrs. Vinyl's obituary, emphasizing that the deceased had a great sense of humor and that her two sons had served honorably in the war. Then noting that the woman had died on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, she observes that the winners of wars are not necessarily "more moral or ethical or nicer or more democratic than [the] enemy," nor does God have anything to do with winning or losing. Miss Volker says that countries win wars "by being tougher and meaner and more ruthless than [the] enemy." She concludes that "the only way to turn enemies into friends is with respect."
When Dad reads Mrs. Vinyl's obituary the next day, he is annoyed with Miss Volker's commentary; he feels that she is just reminding ex-soldiers like himself about horrors they are trying hard to forget. Jack suggests that perhaps remembering is a good thing, so that the mistakes of history will not be repeated. Dad counters by saying that people do not forget, and the atrocities of the past are what make them so fearful of the future. With this thought in mind, Dad sends Jack back to work on the bomb shelter, but the boy continues to argue. He asserts that instead of putting so much energy into surviving the next atomic bomb, it would be easier and more sensible if people would just focus on not having bombs at all. As Jack grudgingly gets ready to go out and dig as directed, Dad mentions that he will soon be moving Mrs. Linga's house to West Virginia.
Two days later, Miss Volker calls again to report that yet another Norvelt original, Mrs. Bloodgood, has died. Miss Volker is anxious to get to work on her obituary, because the dead woman's life was filled with such irony. Mrs. Bloodgood had actively opposed the first Negro family to apply for residency in Norvelt. Mrs. Roosevelt had personally intervened and stopped "the fuss about the issue of race" in the area once and for all. As it had turned out, the Negro family involved in the confrontation was directly responsible for giving the young town its distinctive name, which is a combination of the "nor" from Eleanor and the "velt" from Roosevelt. Miss Volker adds an interesting coda to Mrs. Bloodgood's obit: The land on which Norvelt was built was once a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
As Jack hurries to get the copy to the newspaper office, he is stopped by Mr. Spizz, who threatens to give him a speeding ticket. The disagreeable man tells Jack that the editor of the paper is starting an inquiry into the deaths of so many "old ladies" in such a short period of time. He adds cryptically that "there is a lot going on [that Jack does not] know about." Now that Mrs. Bloodgood is gone, he observes, only Mrs. Droogie is left of the Norvelt originals, not counting himself and Miss Volker. Mr. Spizz tells Jack to drop off Mom's next casserole at Miss Volker's house; he will pick it up, along with her usual offering of Girl Scout cookies, and will deliver them to the estimable survivor. When Jack asks if he thinks the object of his lengthy courtship will even want to see him, Mr. Spizz replies, with barely disguised glee, that he and Miss Volker "have some personal business to finish up that is none of [Jack's] business."
The editor of the newspaper just shakes his head when Jack gives him Mrs. Bloodgood's obit. Curtly, he comments, "Mark my words, change is on the way."
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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 be the case, she is relieved, but she insists that something is definitely amiss in Norvelt.
Jack shares his mother's feelings of uneasiness about the deaths of the old ladies. As he lies in bed that night, he thinks of the Compound 1080 that Miss Volker uses to kill rodents in her basement, and he recalls that both Mr. Spizz and Mr. Huffer have utilized it, too. With horror, he remembers that he had bought some of the poison himself and that he had signed a list to get it. If Mr. Spizz should decide to lie about the incident, Jack himself would be a suspect in the old ladies' deaths.
The next time Jack returns to Miss Volker's house, he notices that the woman has again laid out in her basement chocolates sprinkled with 1080. While he is there, Miss Volker receives a phone call informing her that Mrs. Droogie, the last of the Norvelt originals besides herself and Mr. Spizz, has died. Elated that her promise to Mrs. Roosevelt is almost fulfilled, she commandeers Jack to take her to the deceased's house.
Mr. Huffer, Mr. Spizz, and two county troopers are present when Jack and Miss Volker arrive at the Droogie residence. After conducting an unusually thorough examination, Miss Volker concurs with the funeral parlor owner that Mrs. Droogie died of natural causes. When "cremation as usual" is suggested, the troopers interject. They have been ordered to take the body to the lab for a full autopsy and to release the remains to Mr. Huffer only when it is concluded.
Back in the car, Miss Volker tells Jack the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Antony tried to kill himself with his sword when he heard erroneously that the love of his life had died. He botched the job, however, and Cleopatra came to him as he lingered in agony. When Antony finally breathed his last, she committed suicide as well by allowing herself to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Jack finds the story to be romantic, but Miss Volker disagrees; she thinks it would have been much more romantic if Antony had fallen on his sword properly, allowing Cleopatra to escape and find "a lovely life" without him. Jack understands that Miss Volker is wishing that Mr. Spizz would pass away and leave her to live the new life she longs for in Florida, but he does not think things will work out that way.
After Jack has written out her dictation of Mrs. Droogie's obituary, he asks Miss Volker if she will now marry Mr. Spizz, as promised. Wryly, she suggests that she might deny him on a technicality. Her annoying beau then appears at the door. Not wanting to interfere, Jack leaves to take the obit to the newspaper office. There the editor expresses his opinion that Miss Volker has been engineering the deaths of the Norvelt originals. Jack vehemently objects, and the two make a bet as to the outcome of the autopsy of the latest deceased.
A few days later, Mr. Spizz calls to tell Jack that Miss Volker is under house arrest for murder. The autopsy showed that Mrs. Droogie was "full of poison," and the authorities subsequently found 1080 "all over the chocolates at Miss Volker's house." Jack points out that Miss Volker had been using the chocolates as bait to exterminate rodents in her basement and that others had been using the poison as well, but Mr. Spizz is convinced that she is the guilty party. It is clear to Jack that Mr. Spizz is a bitter man. He concludes that Miss Volker must have told him that she has no intention of marrying him, despite what she may have intimated in the past.
At home, Dad tells his son that he is going to fly to Florida to look for work. When Jack begs for a ride in the J-3, Dad agrees to take him up in the plane in secret, to avoid Mom's wrath.
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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 the sword fearlessly to hold off the hunter; standing about two feet away from him, she realizes the hunter is her wayward brother, Will.
Having been recognized, Will disappears into the woods after dropping his firearm. Jack is surprised to see that the weapon is the Japanese rifle from Dad's collection. He is certain it was Will's bullet which had been in the chamber on that fateful night when he had foolishly pulled the trigger. Jack argues he never should have been grounded for the summer, but Mom says the more important reason for his punishment was the destruction of her cornfield. When Jack counters that he only cut the corn because Dad made him do it, Mom replies that his summer has not been a total loss because he has become such good friends with Miss Volker. Mother and son share an uncharacteristic hug. Then Mom warns Jack that if he ever tells Dad about her brother Will and the gun, he will be grounded until he turns eighteen.
The deer is dead now, lying with its eyes open but unseeing. Jack goes over and gently closes its eyes, lamenting that the poor creature "never did anything wrong in its entire life except to be in the wrong place." He reflects that history is often like that, especially for the innocent.
In the morning, Jack tries to write an obituary for the deer; he knows he will have to find "some good history to go along with it" in order to get it published in the newspaper. After butchering the animal, Dad comes in with the bullet that had been in its neck. He tells his son that he knows he didn't load the Japanese rifle; Dad says it was still wrong, however, that he played with the gun and pulled the trigger. Jack promises never do such a stupid thing again.
Two days later, Mr. Spizz calls to inform Jack that Miss Volker is tied up in her basement. Jack hurries over to her house where he finds the old woman loosely bound on a chair. During the days of her confinement, Miss Volker and Mr. Spizz had done a lot of talking. Spizz had confessed to poisoning the Norvelt originals so that Miss Volker would be free to marry him; he had then tied her up, taken her car, and headed out of town.
After Jack releases her, Miss Volker goes upstairs to take a nap. Before she falls asleep, she comments that tomorrow is the birthday of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. She says that Jack should never forget history because life is a cycle. Jack understands. He decides that this idea is what he will include in the deer's obit.
Freed at last from his summer-long grounding, Jack goes out to play ball with Bunny. While Jack is on the baseball field, his father flies in and lands his plane in right field. Jack races over to greet him, and Dad invites him to hop into the plane for a ride. Dad has brought a crate of balloons filled with red paint and gleefully encourages his son to join him in pelting the town.
Dad "laugh[s] like a maniac" as he tosses the balloons from the plane, but when Jack sees the pandemonium among the people on the ground, he knows what they are doing is wrong. The joke isn't funny. He tells Dad, "People are scared" and asks to be let back down on the field. Jack understands that "being a jerk in the airplane . . . [is] really stupid . . . and being stupid at that moment would forever be a part of who [he is]." The events of the past summer will enable Jack to make wiser choices in his life, because he will always remember his history.