Book Review: If If Ever Get Out Of Here by Eric Gansworth
In If I Ever Get Out Of Here, main character Lewis Blake faces yet another lonely year as the only Native American kid in the all-white smart kids’ class at the local junior high school. As a rez kid in 1975 Buffalo, New York, Lewis knows that 7th grade will probably bring more of the same for him — sitting alone, talking to no one all day until he rides the school bus back to the Tuscarora reservation with the kids he grew up with. Much to his surprise, though, one of the new kids from the town military base doesn’t seem to care that they’re from different worlds, and the two boys soon strike up a friendship over their love of the Beatles and Paul McCartney.
But friendship only extends so far. George and his family welcome Lewis into their home and their lives, but Lewis just can’t quite bring himself to return the favor. Lewis lives with his mother and uncle on the reservation in a house that’s literally falling apart around them, and he’s sure that George would drop him in an instant if he ever got a real sense of just how poverty-stricken Lewis really is.
If I Ever Get Out Of Here is both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of Native American life. In it, the author vividly describes the challenges faced by the children of the reservation, who may attend the white schools but know that they’ll never really leave the rez. In this pre-PC world, outright racism is common in the local community, and when Lewis is targeted by a much-feared bully who’s known for his hatred of “Indians”, none of the adults are willing to intervene. It’s up to Lewis to take a stand, and his bravery leads to both triumph and betrayals as the repercussions are felt throughout the school and the town.
Above everything, If I Ever Get Out Of Here celebrates two universal forces for good: Sincere, unwavering friendship, and the power of rock and roll. George and Lewis are good kids with their heads on (mostly) straight, who understand the importance of family, and who’ve grown up in one form of isolation or another. They bond and connect with a sense of trust that moves beyond the barriers of race and economic class. What truly brings them together, however, is the music, and this book is saturated with the delight of discovering something new and true through the grooves of a vinyl album.
George and his father manage to find tickets to a Paul McCartney and Wings concert in Toronto (although Lewis has to endure the comment from a friend’s dad, “Hope you didn’t get scalped,” complete with hand gestures illustrating just what a scalping would look like). Yet once the concert starts, all the stresses of being the lone Indian among a sea of white people fade away, as Lewis observes the awesome glory of being in a crowd at the perfect rock concert:
The guy next to me grabbed me by the armpit and insisted that I stand on my seat. I was short enough that doing this didn’t make me much taller than anyone else, but I still crouched a little to even the view for the guy directly behind me. A minute or so later, that guy tapped me on the shoulder and yelled that I was fine standing. He was tall enough to see… The strangers around me made me one of them. It was almost like being home on the reservation, and I let myself enjoy the surging excitement.
The Beatles, Wings, Queen, Bowie — these form the soundtrack of the boys’ lives during their junior high school years (and provide the chapter titles in If I Ever Get Out Of Here), and the author thoughtfully provides us with a detailed, lovingly compiled playlist at the back of the book.
This young adult novel strikes me as appropriate perhaps for older middle-grade readers as well, although they may be less familiar with the historical elements that come to life here. In all the different facets of life facing Lewis, the settings ring true. The casual racism and cruelty experienced by Lewis may be shocking to young readers raised in today’s more aware society, but the fear and pain caused by bullying are certainly something that kids of any era would be able to relate to.
Written as a first-person narrative using straight-forward language, If I Ever Get Out Of Here lets us inside Lewis’s head and Lewis’s world, and both are fascinating places to be. As a visit back in time and to a world that most white Americans either can’t or don’t want to see, this book engages the reader’s heart and mind. Lewis is a terrific main character — not a perfect boy by any means, but an overall really good kid who is proud of his people but doesn’t want to be confined by old rules. If I Ever Get Out Of Here vividly captures the dichotomy experienced by the Native American youth who feel a deep sense of belonging within their communities on the reservation — but whose opportunities for better lives lie elsewhere.
I recommend this book for teens and adults alike. The people feel real, the dialogue and events capture the essence of the 1970s, and the music just makes it all come to life. Most of all, it’s a tribute to true friendship — the kind that’s loyal, steadfast, and lifelong — and the difference it can make in a lonely boy’s life.
Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via NetGalley. I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.