Chapters 1-2 Summary

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Chapter 1

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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.

Chapter 2

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...

(The entire section contains 9747 words.)

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