Lewis "Shoe" Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he's not used to is white people being nice to him--people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family's poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reiniger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan's side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis's home--will he still be his friend?
Acclaimed adult author Eric Gansworth makes his YA debut with this wry and powerful novel about friendship, memory, and the joy of rock 'n' roll.
Recommended for ages 12-15.
Listed on the ALA (American Library Association’s) Best Fiction for Young Adults list (compiled by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).
If I Ever Get Out of Here on Goodreads
Interesting that most Goodreads reviewers touted the book but gave it four rather than five stars. That leads me to my critique.
A lot of people want to compare If I Ever Get Out of Here to Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both books cover the same ground: a Native kid struggling to fit in at a white school.
But Absolutely True Diary is an award-winning, top-10 kind of book. If I Ever Get Out of Here has a few flaws that keep it from reaching the same rarefied heights.
Tami cuts Lewis's braid but neglects to keep a lock for cultural reasons. Why didn't Lewis give her explicit instructions beforehand?
Lewis asks to see Carson's guitar and Carson launches into a paragraph of how he got it and can't let anyone touch it. It's several times longer than a real-life explanation would be.
Lewis makes up mocking nicknames for the white kids, which is a Tuscarora thing, then is surprised when no one likes him. Really? I believe he's attended white schools for several years, if not all his life. He certainly watches TV and reads comic books. He should understand the protocols of mainstream culture from these experiences.
When you enter a (sub)culture that's foreign to you, you don't start by joking around. You act politely and observe quietly until people put you at ease.
Whether the people are black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Native, or white, that's Etiquette 101. Every kid, including Lewis, should know it.
I get that Lewis is embarrassed by and ashamed of his home. He can't "risk" his friendship by revealing his pitiful life, even though Charlie would (and eventually does) understand. But he goes almost to sitcom lengths of silliness to protect his secret.
It would've been better to say something like, "My mother doesn't allow visitors." Or, "We don't have insurance so we can't risk visitors." I.e., make up a story that's close to the truth. Put the issue to bed and proceed with the friendship. Leaving the issue unresolved for weeks of character time feels like dramatic artifice.
Besides...though I don't know much about poverty, I find it hard to believe Lewis's family couldn't fix the hole in their roof. The rain and snow coming through it makes their kitchen almost unusable. They have several able-bodied men and women, and enough money to buy Lewis an expensive Christmas present. A sheet of plywood to cover the hole would do wonders for their living conditions.
The bullying subplot
For starters, you have to wonder how Evan keeps ambushing Lewis. Can't Lewis stay in the open where he can see Evan approaching? And exercise the better part of valor and retreat? Apparently not, since Evan keeps surprising him.
Pointedly, not a single youngster or adult intervenes to help Lewis. The kids look the other way; the adults suggest he should "be a man" or "learn how to handle people." Part of it is because the wealthy Reiniger family finances the school's budget. And part is because these people are racist. They think Lewis's kinfolk will turn on the whites if they take his side. Or worse, that he's provoking the fights in some nefarious scheme to take advantage of them.
Charlie is big enough to fight off Evan...but Charlie is under the impression that his father has forbidden him to fight. If Charlie lifts a finger to help Lewis, he thinks his family will be disgraced and his father kicked out of the Air Force. So he turns away when his best friend is getting beaten in front of him.
Even in 1975, when bullying wasn't the cause it is now, this is ridiculous. I was in school then, and I'm confident no school would tolerate a kid's being bruised and bloodied more than once or twice. If Lewis was injured or killed, the school would face a massive lawsuit and the staff would face criminal penalties. No one's money is sufficient to allow such a reign of terror.
The whole bullying plot feels contrived. Lewis happens to be too small to fight back. Charlie happens to be a pacifist who can't intervene. Evan's family happens to be rich enough to avoid consequences. The school officials happen to be bigots who think Lewis is somehow causing the beatings.
Finally, Lewis simply refuses to go to school unless someone does something. Two weeks later, a counselor says they've sent Evan away and Lewis can return. Something caused this outcome--something involving Charlie--but no one will tell Lewis what.
Another fifty pages pass before we learn what happened, off-page, to stop the bullying. You can almost see Gansworth thinking, "How can I stretch out the bullying conflict so I can resolve it near the climax?" Again, too much artifice.
Fortunately, If I Ever Get Out of Here ends well, which makes up for these plot failings. You feel like you've gained a real insight into the hardscrabble life of the Tuscarora in upstate New York. You can believe that Lewis is a real person who might grow up to be a musician or writer like Eric Gansworth.
In conclusion, I'd say the book is solid if not spectacular. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.