Monday, September 23, 2013

Book review: "If I Ever Get Out of Here" by Eric Gansworth

TitleIf I Ever Get Out of Here
Author: Eric Gansworth
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013

If I Ever Get Out of Here opens right before Lewis Blake begins seventh grade. He is used to being one of the only Indian kids in his class at school, but he is tired of the loneliness; despite his attempts to fit in, he still struggles to be noticed and accepted. Then he meets a new kid from the air force base, George, and things start to change a bit.

George is Lewis's new connection to the white world, though he knows he can't invite his new friend to his home (his mother forbids it, as they live in poverty), and that he still has to deal with all kinds of prejudices at school and in town. Set in the late 1970s in upstate New York, Lewis tells his story about life growing up on the Tuscarora Reservation, going to a mostly white school, and trying to balance out two worlds in a place where loyalties are expected on one side or another. This is a book about friendship and acceptance of self and culture, especially when faced with extremely difficult and unfair situations.

I'm guessing that because this is a book about a boy on an Indian reservation who is one of the few non-white people in his class, it's inevitable that it will get comparisons to Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But that, I think, is selling both works short. Gansworth's novel focuses on racism, injustice, and a semi-forbidden friendship, all wrapped up together with music (mostly Wings, The Beatles, and Queen). Alexie's is not presented as historical fiction and has more humor and tragedy than Gansworth's work. If I Ever Get Out of Here is more middle-school-friendly in terms of language and content, though it is still a bit hard to read emotionally speaking.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking how important it is to see how others are treated because of heritage or class. It might not be as blatant in our country as it was 30 or 40 years ago, but it still exists and it's important to see it through the target's eyes. It's also important if the reader has been a target him- or herself to see someone else in their same situation and how they handle it.

Lewis also has to deal with a pretty brutal bully, and coupled with the way the adults treat him because he is from the reservation, the situation turns from one of physical assault to that of abject hostility from every corner, especially school teachers and administration. The amount of strength and gumption Lewis has just astounds me, to be so brave and demand justice even when it seems so utterly hopeless.

I hope If I Ever Get Out of Here is widely read, though I'm not sure younger readers will stick with it long enough to finish. I hope I'm wrong about that, because there's a lot in here, and it might just have been me having trouble getting through it because of how sad it made me. Still, I'm really glad I read it and bought it for my library. We'll see if I can get a few kids to pick it up!

Disclosure: I received an e-galley from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

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