“I told you you’d change once you seen how that half lived,” he said. “You didn’t believe me before. I hate to tell you, but that road only goes one way. You can’t turn around.”
—If I Ever Get Out of Here, Eric Gansworth
It’s kind of impossible not to compare Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so I’m just going to get it out of the way now: Yes, there are lots of parallels, both broad and narrow.
Both books are about a boy growing up poor on a reservation, who goes to a school where he is the only American Indian in his classroom, and who doesn’t have reliable transportation in an area that is not exactly brimming with public transit.
Both books are about navigating two cultures, touch on cultural appropriation, and are about the comforts and frustrations of strong familial ties; both explore the push/pull desire to assimilate into another world and about the resulting guilt, anger and shame that comes with that desire.
Both books strongly reflect each boy’s interest in the arts, through Junior’s cartoons in Part-time Indian and through the Paul McCartney–themed chapter headings and paintings in If I Ever Get Out of Here; both chronicle a new, life-changing friendship; and both protagonists deal with racism in many guises, from violently deliberate to unthinkingly casual.
Both deal with issues—bullying, identity, different tiers of friendship, the breakdown of childhood relationships, leaving people behind and being left behind—that will be familiar to many readers, regardless of cultural or economic background, and as the emotions in both books ring so true, most readers will find moments that resonate emotionally, regardless of the situational details.
And, of course, both books give a voice to and a vision of young people growing up on reservations: Alexie’s Junior, to and of the Spokane Indian Reservation, and Gansworth’s Lewis, to and of the Tuscarora Nation Reservation circa 1975.
Here’s where they diverge:
If I Ever Get Out of Here’s Lewis isn’t the only kid from the reservation at his school. He is the only kid from the rez in the advanced-track classes, though, so he’s still the odd man out. He doesn’t have anyone to commiserate with in the moment, to compare notes with, to collaborate on decoding white culture. At the same time, he can see how his peers are faring on a daily basis: most notably, his sort-of friend Carson, who deals with the situation by passing as white AND becoming friends with the biggest bully—who is also a huge racist—at school.
The other really big difference lies in the background and identity of Lewis’ friend George, an Air Force brat who lives on the local military base. As the child of a Navy brat, I can tell you: You don’t see that culture represented very often in YA fiction. At all. Like, this is the first time I remember seeing it. Military families, yes. Military families who pick up and move almost every year, no.
It’s not without issues: The writing is stiff in parts—in some cases, as in the dialogue of George’s German-born mother, that makes sense—both in dialogue and the narration; there are some scenes where Gansworth resorts to telling rather than showing the reader what the characters are feeling; and sometimes the details of rez life are provided via infodump, rather than being organically woven in.
None of those issues are so consistent that they detract from the emotional honesty of the book, though. They won’t detract from the empathy you’ll feel for Lewis, they won’t negate the moments when you see yourself in him and they certainly won’t keep you from rooting for him from start to finish.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.