If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
It’s 1975 in upstate New York, and Lewis is a boy entering seventh grade. He’s a kid from the reservation, but the school is out in the white world, and to top it off he’s in the “smart track” where he is the only Indian. He’s determined to make friends in that white world, and the book opens with a scene in which he gets his reservation friend to chop off his braid. It’s not a merely symbolic act—Lewis thinks his reservation-kid status is an obstacle, and the braid telegraphs this.
“You think cutting off your braid is going to make those white kids suddenly talk to you?” (pg 1)
Right on page one, we focus on the thing that Lewis sees as his true obstacle: his Indian-ness.
A few pages later Lewis identifies and then meets the one new kid in his class, George, a white kid from a recently transferred military family. George immediately suggests they visit each other’s homes. Thus, making a friend is quickly dispatched as a problem; instead, Lewis’ problem becomes keeping his family’s poverty a secret as he builds the friendship with George.
“…I know secrets drive you crazy.” I had never thought this about myself, but even as he said it, I realized it was true. (pg. 107)
This contradiction—that secrets drive Lewis crazy, but he’s desperate to keep his reservation life a secret from George—creates a lot of emotional tension and helps propel the story forward through a fairly long time frame, from the beginning of seventh grade through the historic blizzard of 1977.
If you wanted to call this an issue book, you’d have a lot to choose from. Racism? Check. Poverty? Check. Bullying and corrupt local politics? Check and check. But all of this is context. The heart and theme of the book is how true friendship ultimately requires the truth in friendship.
This book is a lengthy read with a introspective tone. The language is smart and humorous, the characters well-drawn and the framework of the book is tied to an exploration of the music of the Beattles. (The intended audience may start this book having never heard of the band, but they’ll be experts before they turn the last page.) The age of the characters means the story hovers in the overlap between middle grade and young adult. This would be the rare book I’d recommend even for teens much older than the characters. –Haley I.