If I Ever Get Out of Here

by Eric Gansworth

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Last Updated April 19, 2024.

As a coming-of-age novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here tracks a young Native boy's maturation into adulthood across critical two years defined by his improbable friendship with a white kid.

Because Lewis serves as a first-person narrator, the reader discovers how his perceptions change, revealing it was not an easy transition. In third grade, when Lewis wanted a nickname like all the white kids, he decided, without irony, that his nickname should be Invisible Boy. The nickname reveals Lewis’ low self-esteem, his social isolation, loneliness, and uneasiness over his own identity.

He is a rez kid, the only non-white kid in his school, and at 12, already aware of racism. He allows the white kids to define him. He is a “Welfare Indian,” a dirt-poor “redskin” with a “deadbeat” father whose mother cleans white folks’ toilets and whose uncle is a Vietnam veteran with symptoms of PTSD.

That uneasiness with his identity is symbolized by his dramatic decision just days before the start of middle school to cut off the long braid of hair he had long worn as a sign of his Native roots. Middle school, he decides, will be a new start. He will pretend not to be himself.

Even as he and George become friends and George reveals his generosity and openness, Lewis hides his family’s poverty, refusing to let George visit his family’s dilapidated home and see its mismatched furniture, papered-over windows, and partially collapsed roof.

Through his friendship with George, Lewis begins to understand the complex dimensions of his Native identity and, more importantly, to take pride in his family and identity as a Tuscarora. The tipping point comes after Lewis and George spend an idyllic evening watching Venus and Mars in the summer sky.

Emboldened by a sense of friendship, a feeling new to Lewis, Lewis asks George whether he might want to come to the National Picnic, an annual summer celebration of the Tuscarora tribe. He had seen white people at the festival before, so “someone must have brought them.”

George and his father attend the celebration, and both defy the assumptions Lewis has about white people. The father and son are fascinated by the cuisine and go to each booth to sample everything. They are mesmerized by the night’s sporting event, Fireball, a kind of soccer game in which the ball is set on fire and then kicked about the field until the fire goes out.

For Lewis, it is the first time he sees his culture from a white person’s perspective. He explains the food, games, and handmade trinkets for sale. He is unexpectedly proud of his Native identity because he shares it with white people not intent on destroying or mocking it. Venus and Mars are suddenly not so far apart. As it turns out, not every white kid is an Evan Reiniger.

Later, during the blizzard, when George and his father take shelter in Lewis' family home, Lewis finally makes peace with who he is and stops pretending to be someone else.

Initially, Lewis dreads his white friend seeing finally the poverty in which he lives. For him, his own home is only “an eternal source of mortification.” George, however, is grateful to Lewis’ family for taking them in. He feels hurt that Lewis would even think he would judge his family. “You think your place isn’t good enough? Nice enough?” George’s father takes the measure of the family’s home and recommends to Lewis’ uncle that he look into government-secured loans for home improvement. The experiences on the reservation back in Minnesota made George and his father keenly sympathetic to the struggles of Natives.

Over those six days, the two families bond in a friendship that gives Lewis, at last, a sense of embracing rather than apologizing for who he is. That feeling, George assures him, is “what real friends do.”

What makes the friendship that changes Lewis (and George) possible is the...

(This entire section contains 1086 words.)

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power of music to bring people together, whatever their background, economic class, or ethnic identity. George and Lewis bond over their mutual love of The Beatles. They know the albums. They know the lyrics, which speak to them at complex emotional levels. They even discuss the instrumentation of the tracks.

That love of music allows George to violate the unwritten social contract of his new school: White kids do not make friends with the rez kids. Their friendship explores the music from Paul McCartney and his new band, Wings. This willingness suggests the novel’s larger theme that Lewis himself cannot be stuck in the past but, like the post-Beatles McCartney, must evolve, explore, and change.

Music helps Lewis transcend his own narrow identity. The Wings show in Montreal provides Lewis with his first real experience with diverse kids. Feeling the raw energy of the concert, Lewis sheds his inhibitions and becomes part of the arena’s multicultural crowd.

But music does more than bring two kids together. Music allows Lewis to bond with George’s father, another Beatles fan. Learning guitar allows Lewis to bond with the eccentric reservation resident who gives him lessons. During the blizzard, George’s father and Lewis’ uncle bond over memories of music from their adolescence. Music creates community.

But the novel attempts an even more daring community. The book is highlighted with references to music, not just The Beatles and Wings but Eric Clapton, Queen, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind, and Fire, as well as a wide range of Broadway musicals (George and Lewis are both in Chorus). Chapter titles alternate between Beatles song titles and Wings song titles. The book title comes from the lyrics to McCartney’s song “Band on the Run.”

In the Appendix, the author provides a four-page playlist of all the novel’s songs, complete with links. This playlist acts as the novel’s most daring community, inviting readers to immerse themselves by listening to the same music that unites Lewis and George. Thus, the reader bonds with the characters themselves.