Monday, March 5, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

Okay.  Kids' lit.  The ostensible reason I started this blog in the first place, and what with my obsessions with the GOP race and whatnot, I seem to have gotten off track.  I never did mention that last month I read "Dead End in Norvelt," by Jack Gantos, this year's Newbery winner.  I expect a lot from a Newbery winner, as I think I have a right to, and I was disappointed.  I much preferred "Moon Over Manifest," last year's winner, also a middle-grade novel set in an earlier 20th-century era, also featuring a lively and just-precocious-enough protagonist who proceeds to discover the secrets hidden within a seemingly uninteresting small town.  In each of the books, the narrator forges a connection with a wise older woman who holds the key to unlock the town's mysteries, which include at least one murder.  But "Manifest" makes no bones about its undercurrent of magical realism, whereas "Norvelt" professes to tell a straightforward, realistic story, but doesn't.  One major problem I have with the book is that the chief villian, who is depicted as a buffoon and seems to be satisfied to indulge in rather low-grade evil (fining the narrator's impoverished family for failing to cut their weeds, for example), turns out to be a serial killer.  But, bizarrely, this fact is revealed in a rather offhand way, as if it ranks not much higher in the general scheme of things than the killer's harmless pecadilloes.  There are a few things I feel compelled to point out about this.  First, I would have to say that I live in a much larger town than Norvelt was when the story takes place, and yet, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of serial killers I've known among my neighbors.  And second, as a career criminal defense lawyer, I feel qualified to assert that those who commit multiple homicides are taken quite seriously by the criminal justice system, regardless of their other foibles.  This is, in my opinion, an appropriate stance, and I am troubled by Gantos' seemingly relativistic viewpoint that seems to consider murder as not much more than a public nuisance.  Not only is this perhaps not the message we might want to be teaching our 8-to-12-year-old children; in the context of the story, it simply doesn't make sense.  I also felt that the insertion of many of the book's references to historical events, while interesting in themselves, seemed quite random, and failed to either advance the plot or reveal anything new about the characters.
     In sum, my reviews are: "Manifest," thumbs up, despite some flaws; "Norvelt," thumbs down, despite some strengths.  Feel free to disagree with me.  But if you do, LEAVE A COMMENT, OKAY???

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