"If I Ever Get Out of Here," Eric Gansworth's first novel for young people, rings true with a sophisticated look at what it's like to be an outsider and what it takes to be a true friend.
Lewis Blake has precious little going for him in school; he's smart, sure. But he's super skinny, essentially friendless, his family is dirt poor, and he's from the "rez" in an area that routinely treats his Tuscarora Reservation community with disdain — or worse.
The friendship part starts to change with the arrival at school of George, an Air Force kid. Lewis and George share the same experiences many adolescent pals do: eagerness to learn about girls, sneaked beers, campouts. And in their case a mad crush on Beatles music, a passion also shared by George's dad.
While friendship is a common theme in kids' books, Gansworth's perspective gives it a fresh spin. The author, a professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., is a member of the Onondaga Nation and was born and raised on the Tuscarora Reservation. He pulls in elements such as race, poverty and power in ways that are compelling and honest. Just as many Americans have recently been forced to confront their own reactions to race, some of the characters are forced to question their beliefs.
Chapters cleverly take their titles from songs from the Beatles or from Paul McCartney's later work; in fact, the book's title comes from a Wings lyric in "Band on the Run." There's also plenty of humor in the drama of getting through what surely must be the worst period of life, junior high (and it's pitched just right for its audience, 12 and older).
George is a strong, fair kid, appealing in his own right. When his family moves to the military base near Lewis' home, he comes to school none too fussy about who his friends will be — as an Air Force kid who moves all the time, he can't afford to take long to find friends. He ignores this advice about Lewis from a classmate: "This kid's an Indian. Stay away from him too. More trouble." Of course, George is something of a misfit too.
The boys come from loving families, but sometimes kids have to figure their own way. Lewis maturely sums up his own situation: "I could believe all I wanted that offering a reasonable explanation to someone in power would set the world right, that rules were in place so everyone was treated equally. But the truth was, no one was ever treated equally."
Lewis also lives under the wrath of a wretched school bully, Evan, who assaults him almost daily for a time until Lewis learns the value of civil disobedience. And George, plenty big enough to fight Evan but reluctant to do so, learns his own lessons from the situation.
The deeper the friendship grows between the boys, the harder it becomes for them to live with the lies they tell each other. For example, Lewis from the start cannot imagine inviting George to his tumble-down mess of a home. ("It was probably true that … it would take a natural disaster to crash around us all before he would ever be able to come over to my house, but I didn't care.")
And that's just the start of the secrets they keep from each other, though of course they — as well as many of the people who love them — must confront what they hide before the book is done.
More than just engaging, "If I Ever Get Out of Here" is the sort of book that can spark all kinds of meaningful conversation.
If I Ever Get Out of Here
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic: 368 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and older