If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
After four novels, four poetry collections, editing an anthology (and multiple awards), Eric Gansworth – who is also a playwright and visual artist – takes on young adult fiction for his 10th title. His 7th-grade hero, Lewis Blake, calls the Tuscarora Reservation in upstate New York, ‘home,’ where Gansworth – a member of the Onondaga Nation – was also raised. That Gansworth himself resonantly narrates the audible version enhances his young adult debut with further authenticity.
In the 1970s, Lewis enters seventh grade as the only “rez kid” to be tracked in the “brainiacs” section of the country junior high school. “[T]ossed … in with twenty-two white strangers,” Lewis not only looks different, but his family is abjectly poor, his single mother constantly struggling, his father (and any support payments) missing, his uncle Albert more unpredictable than not, his older brother not exactly a role model. School is hardly a safe haven as even teachers turn a blind eye to the neglect and abuse Lewis regularly endures, especially from the spoiled, nasty son of the school’s largest financial supporter.
When George Haddonfield arrives as the new kid, Lewis just might finally have a friend. George’s family has (again) relocated to the local Air Force base from Germany, most recently by way of Guam. His intact, stable, solid middle-class family couldn’t be more different from Lewis’. The two boys’ overlapping musical interests bond them almost instantly, but Lewis’ deep embarrassment about his family’s circumstances cause him to respond to George’s open, welcoming overtures of friendship – not to mention his frequent invitations – with lies and then more lies. The half-truths, un-truths, and bullying eventually implode … and Lewis must deal with the fall-out of potentially losing a best friend and confronting an adversary allowed to become far too powerful by adults who should have known better.
Through his struggles with identity, friendship, prejudice, and abuse, Gansworth’s young hero manages to find moments of joy in music, laughter, and unexpected honesty. Reminiscent of Sherman Alexie’s iconic The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Gansworth finds the exact balance of challenge and triumph to create an inspiring, poignant coming-of-age story that will make you simultaneously want to put up your dukes and pull out the tissue box both: it’s a full-spectrum read for sure.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult