Saturday, December 21, 2013

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Have you ever hidden something from a friend because you were ashamed? I have. I don't know why I did it. Of all people, friends are supposed to accept you for who you are. It's risky, too, because it often leads to an awkward moment when the friend finds out the truth.

Feeling shame about yourself and your life is the underlying foundation of this story. Lewis is a Tuscarora Indian living on a reservation in upstate New York. It is the 1970s and life on the 'rez' is not so easy. Lewis lives in a run down house with no indoor plumbing. He lives with his mother who cleans the houses of white people and his Uncle Albert, a disabled vet.

Many people in the surrounding communities hate Indians (including one particular bully from an influential family), so for the most part they stay to themselves. Lewis earned a place in the higher academic classes of his mostly white school. Usually at least two Indians are put in the same academic level , but Lewis is the the only one and must be alone with no friends as he starts the school year.

On the first day, he meets a new kid named George, the son of an Air Force officer. George is warned to stay away from the 'wild Indian kid,' but he has been the new kid enough to trust his own judgement. Lewis and George quickly bond over their love of music, particularly the Beatles and Paul McCartney. Lewis is reluctant at first, but he visits George's house and eventually spends many evenings there having dinner and listening to albums. It is when George wants to visit Lewis' house that Lewis starts making lame excuses. How can he let George see the poverty of his everyday life?

Lewis is an original character. Even though he is physically small, he is very strong. He steps outside the comfort zone that many of his fellow Indians live in. He takes flak from both sides: whites for being 'distrustful' and Indians for befriending whites. He takes a lot from bullies, but stands up for himself when he needs to.

This story is an incredible view into the everyday existence of Indians and the delicate balance of surviving in a white dominated society while trying to maintain their own culture. I never imagined some of the hardships and 'rules' that must be endured by native people. I can only hope that in the 30 plus years since the 70s that things have changed for the better. I fear they have not.

For more info, check out the Evergreen library catalog and the author's site.

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