- Reviewed by
“Paul McCartney had sung just a few Beatles songs during the show. One of them had been ‘Yesterday,’ about longing for an easier, earlier life. On its surface, it was a breakup song. But its perfection at capturing impossible losses made it one of the world’s best-known songs. You didn’t need to have someone dump you to long for a time when your life was easier. You could fill in your own sadness” (158–59). So narrates the protagonist of Onondaga author and artist Eric Gansworth’s young adult novel If I Ever Get out of Here. One could make a similar argument about this book: its perfection at capturing adolescent struggles makes it an incredibly rich work. You don’t need to be American Indian to understand it. You can fill in your own experiences. In fact, the universal themes on which the novel focuses—such as friendship, belonging, and adolescence—are part of what make the book so accessible. That being said, Gansworth’s novel is undeniably just as much about what it means to be American Indian as it is about what it means to be a teenager, especially given the careful attention he dedicates to various facets of American Indian history and culture.
If I Ever Get out of Here takes readers back in time to 1975 (the year before the United States’ bicentennial) on the Tuscarora Nation’s reservation in New York, where unpopular seventh-grader Lewis Blake is about to start his second year at the nearby “white school.” At the novel’s onset, Lewis has one goal: to put an end to his tenure as “the Invisible Boy” (his self-appointed nickname) and make at least one friend. In a scene that calls to mind both the history of Indian boarding schools and US military procedures, the book opens with Lewis having his braid cut off and his remaining hair buzzed short. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel: through Lewis’s quest to figure out who he is, who he wants his friends to be, and how he wants his Indianness to factor into his sense of self, the reader is exposed to the complex history of American Indians alongside the story of Lewis’s coming-of-age. Gansworth uses three boys (Carson, George, and the Wedgie King) at Lewis’s school to illustrate three of the most significant aspects of his quest for belonging. Carson is Lewis’s oldest friend and also lives on the reservation, but at the same time, Carson alternates between friend and antagonist. Lewis’s relationship [End Page 98] with Carson is fraught, and his attempts to figure out how Carson fits into his life parallel his internal efforts to decide what roles his culture and the Tuscarora community occupy in his understanding of himself. Conversely, George is the child of military parents who just moved to town. George, who is white, commits the social taboo of befriending Lewis; their mutual love of the Beatles and their different experiences as cultural outsiders prove to be the perfect ingredients for a deep connection. More representative of the other white students at the school, the Wedgie King hates American Indians and makes Lewis the focus of his intense bullying as the school year progresses. Lewis struggles to avoid the Wedgie King’s targeted violence while his friendship with George grows stronger and his relationship with Carson becomes increasingly strained, and his navigation of these complicated social dynamics takes readers on an emotional voyage as Lewis develops his identity.
The novel’s structure reflects this internal journey toward a cohesive sense of self: each chapter “is named, in alternating order, for a Beatles song and a Paul McCartney post-Beatles song” (353), as Gansworth explains in the “Playlist & Discography” that follows the novel. This alternation between Beatles songs and Paul McCartney songs—between the group and the individual—echoes Lewis’s attempts to belong to a community while also existing as an individual with...