Bros. Bro-tank. Brah. Brotastic. Bromance. Brohemia. The rise of “bro” culture saddens me, not least because so much of the “bro” persona is a thinly veiled attempt to hide the awkwardness of male friendship, particularly among young men. One of the strongest qualities of Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here is that it so evocatively presents that very awkwardness, as the narrator Lewis Blake and the newly arrived George Haddonfield bond over music, girls, bullies, family, and Wacky Packages (yes, the book is set in the 1970s, and I had forgotten all about Wacky Packages until reading If I Ever Get Out of Here).
Such honest male friendships are all too rare in young adult literature. Certainly many books intended for male readers are published (I know the author Maureen Johnson says books should not have a gender, and I understand and support her argument, but until we improve our culture I still need to find books that will appeal to my current male students), and I read many of them trying to find titles that will engage my more reluctant male readers.
Diverse perspectives are another rarity in young adult literature. The popularity of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian notwithstanding, Native voices and Native characters are hard to find, and ignorance of Native life outside of the history textbooks (which themselves often do a poor job of presenting Native history) remains pervasive, at least among my students in the Midwest. If I Ever Get Out of Here helps change that.
The book tells the story of Lewis, a brainy Native kid from the reservation attending classes with the white kids at the local school. He is socially isolated, stuck between two worlds: the traditional ways of his tribe, and the ways of the white kids at his school. But when George's family moves to the military base nearby, Lewis makes his first real friend his own age, and makes his first foray into the world of the white culture.
The Cybils-nominated If I Ever Get Out of Here does a wonderful job of showing the awkward friendship between two teenage guys, a friendship that transcends race and class. George's father is an officer, so the family is fairly well off. Lewis's father has no part in his life, and Lewis is ashamed of his home and the cleaning jobs his mother is forced to take. Their friendship grows, and then grows strained as George has his first girlfriend and Lewis must deal with severe bullying.
I taught mostly Native students when I worked in New Mexico, and although Lewis grows up on a reservation in upstate New York (as did the author), many of the cultural struggles of his tribe reminded me of what I learned from my students, most of whom faced the same tough question as Lewis:
"In the same way, I thought, I wanted to be just me, Lewis Blake, not "Indian Lewis" like I was at school. I didn't have any objections to being known as an Indian, but couldn't I have my own life as just me? Or like McCartney, was I stuck being expected to play the songs of my first band for the rest of my life? Could you play both, or were you required to make a choice?" (159)
If I Ever Get Out of Here was an excellent novel, and it deserves wider readership. Highly recommended.