If I Ever Get Out of Here was a book that caught our attention at Rich in Color, so we decided we should do a group discussion for it. Read on to see what we thought about the book.
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 Reininger, 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.
Crystal: I loved the humor though it was a sad kind of humor sometimes like on p. 12 “Despite my haircut, they were just as friendly to me as they’d been when I last saw them, which was about as friendly as strangers thrown together in a hospital emergency room late on a Saturday night.”
Jessica: The various friendships throughout the novel really got me. The book summary highlights Lewis’ friendship with George, but that’s not the only major friendship in the novel. The relationships Lewis had with his relatives and friends on the reservation (in addition to his friendship with George) gave his character nuance.
When I was reading, I couldn’t help comparing it to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian since both stories initially take the same path of smart boy leaves the reservation to go to school with the white kids. I got the feeling that If I Ever Get Out of Here is targeted at an older audience in terms of writing style and character depth. (And lack of cartoons.)
Crystal: I agree Jessica. I don’t know how anyone could read this after The Absolutely True Diary, without thinking about the other novel. They are very similar in the set-up though the characters and the relationships are distinctly different. I would also agree that the relationships are what enrich the character. The interactions with others show us who Lewis is.
In this day and age, mainstream Americans protect their children a lot. The cultural norm is that children are never without a “responsible adult” supervising them, but Lewis and the others in his circle had grown up in a less structured way. He points out that “A lot of the things I’d grown up doing might not be considered the safest way of life, but there was no beating the rush in your blood when you were a little less controlled that the rest of the country.” p 79 How do you all think that shaped him and those around him?
Audrey: I found that conflict–between what Lewis and his friends knew they could get away with on the reservation and what they’d get in trouble for outside of it–fascinating. It was something I wish Gansworth had explored more, actually, because I think that would have been great territory for more insider/outsider conflict. Lewis was very well aware of the different worlds he had to navigate throughout the book, and everyone else in his family was as well. At least he was generally aware that he was giving something up (safety) in exchange for something he wanted (an adrenaline rush).
Crystal: Did anyone else find themselves wanting to listen to all of the music references? I was excited to find that Eric Gansworth provided a page that has a YouTube playlist. I wish I knew that while I was reading rather than after I finished.
Audrey: That’s really neat! I wish I’d known earlier, but I will definitely have to listen to the playlist this weekend. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the Beatles’ and Paul McCartney’s discography is remarkably limited, so I was always thrilled whenever I recognized a song title.
Crystal: This was also a book about bullying. It was so true to life with that tension between wanting to just avoid being involved and knowing that standing up may be the right thing to do. I found a passage that speaks to the bullying, but again demonstrates Gansworth’s subtle ability with humor. “Invariably, if you pay too much attention to someone else’s troubles, it’s like they sneezed their trouble onto you. The disruption to your life starts off minor, like a stuffy nose, but it can easily escalate into catastrophe, like full-blown pneumonia, an oxygen-tent-in-the-hospital kind of difficulty.” p 125
Audrey: Bullying, especially the physically violent sort, always twists my stomach up in knots. It’s always hard for me to handle, but that subtle humor (which was appropriately dark) gave me hope that the bullying would end. I was more than a little worried that Lewis would get to use that baseball bat, so I was grateful that George interefered in time.
Crystal: Strangely enough, this book also reminded me of Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg. In that book, the boy goes to a new school and doesn’t tell anyone he is gay because he just wants to be Rafe not the “gay guy” for a change. Lewis is frustrated that he is always Indian Lewis. He wonders if like Paul McCartney, who is best known as a Beatle, he is going to be stuck in a certain role for all of his life. I think most people can relate to being labeled to a certain degree, but in the U.S. that is especially true for anyone who is not straight and white. He has the struggle of wanting to be Indian, but not wanting people to see him as only Indian, especially when their definition of Indian may not even be accurate.
Jessica: I actually read Openly Straight right after reading If I Ever Get Out of Here — that’s an interesting comparison! I liked that the person who stepped up to become Lewis’ friend was George, the military kid who’s always moving around and doesn’t get to settle down. George also has had his (albeit much smaller) share of feeling like the outsider. The introduction of his mother, an immigrant woman, makes George’s connection with Lewis even more powerful since it shows the variety of ways people can suffer/struggle with being considered an outsider. There’s usually a lot of struggle when it comes to labels — since they box you in, but they also give you a group of people to belong to.
Jon: I want to preface what I’m gonna say with the fact that I really liked If I Ever Get Out of Here. I loved the strong relationships, especially between Lewis and his uncle, the humor, and the musical influences were all really great. However, as I got into the book, I started being bothered by how George (and his father to an extent) just seemed to be too perfect. Yes I understand the motivation behind George’s actions — wanting to get to know about American Indians because of his father’s mysterious childhood — but he seemed to be very pushy and slightly ignorant about it.
Yes, George was used to being an outsider too, from traveling around so much and being a military kid, but being an outsider one way doesn’t equate across the board. Plus he just trampled over Lewis’ sensitive issues sometimes, like when he literally kept inviting himself over to Lewis’ house. I know he wanted to check out the reservation but c’mon, I was like “Stop it, Lewis doesn’t want you over there!” This is definitely a thing I see in real life, where the privileged person is like “I understand because I did X, so now we can be buddies. It’s all good!” I think this type of mentality undermines their relationship, regardless of the motivation behind it.
And yes, George’s family opened up their house and lives to Lewis and of course he’s grateful, but it also seemed like they were positioned as the White Saviors in the context of the book. I kept hoping for George, or his dad, to do something insensitive or off, because they are human, and that should have happened somewhere, right? Instead they were presented as picture perfect, swooping in to save the day both for Lewis’ social life and his family’s house. Was I being oversensitive in my reading? What do you guys think?
Jessica: I don’t think you were being oversensitive — it’s good to keep that stuff in mind when reading. And yeah, it did feel like George and his family were portrayed as this sort of ideal, but with Diary of a Part-time Indian in mind, I was just happy that Lewis and George’s friendship wasn’t as, er, problematic as the relationships in Diary felt. (Like in Diary, with the main character feeling like his bullies/white classmates were cooler than his friends/family back on the reservation and really wanting that one white girl who was pretty racist, if I recall, to be his girlfriend… Or maybe I’m remembering Diary wrong? I might be. It’s been a while, but I definitely felt a bit iffy about the portrayal of different relationships in Diary.)
I did find it sort of bizarre that George could be friends with people who bullied Lewis and friends with Lewis at the same time — like he was just too good-natured and too willing to overlook things he shouldn’t. I was glad that, by the end of the book, he did help Lewis stand up to the bullies. (But then maybe that was George’s flaw? That he felt like listening to his father’s orders to never fight was more important than helping a friend out…???? But then he wasn’t called out on it… Hm.)
Crystal: I agree, that George almost seemed too perfect sometimes, but some of that made sense in that he and his father were very aware of the injustice that had happened surrounding the time of the boarding schools and they wanted to in some way make up for it.
What did you think about If I Ever Get Out of Here? What were your favorite parts of the book? What criticisms did you have of it? We want to hear from you!