Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

America--or any nation--celebrates moments and events in its history that show that nation in a good light. Noting those moments is important, but so is noting that there is not a single story within any nation. Not everyone celebrates those same moments. Some people have a different view of those moments.

Take, for example, the celebration of United States Bicentennial. In the opening pages of his If I Ever Get Out of Here, Eric Gansworth's protagonist looks down the street at his elementary school. He imagines teachers getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, and notes that the teachers would be puzzled that the celebrations would not be a priority on the reservation.  

Knowing that Gansworth pokes at that celebration might turn you off. You might think that his book is an anti-American screed. 

Rest easy. It isn't. 

It also isn't one of those 'eat your veggies' kind of books...

It is, however, a rare but honest look at culture and how people with vastly different upbringings and identities can clash. And dance. And laugh. Gansworth informs readers about cultural difference, but he doesn't beat anyone up as he does it. 

Gansworth's novel is told in three parts. Here's my thoughts on Part 1, Chapter 1. I've got lots of notes on the rest of the book and will share them later.

Part 1 – If I Ever Get Out of Here

Do you remember the photo on the album sleeve for Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run? A group of people, clad in black, is standing and crouched in front of a brick wall. Caught in a spotlight, they are ‘on the run.’ 

That album cover is the inspiration for Gansworth’s graphic introduction to part one of his novel, but Gansworth’s group is facing the wall. What, I wondered, does that suggest to us about his novel? 

Of course, each reader will answer that question in a different way, based on what he or she brings to the reading itself. Our baggage, so to speak, impacts how we read. 

The image is provocative. So are the people we meet when we start reading part one. In the first chapter, Gansworth introduces us to key people in the story, telling us just enough about them to know how they'll figure in this story about a Native kid named Lewis and his friendship with George. He's the son of a guy in the Air Force. George is not Native. In fact, George's mother is German, which adds a lot to the story.

Meet Lewis Blake. He’s a smart kid. He lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. He’s just about to start seventh grade in one of the “brainiacs” sections set aside for the above-average kids.  As the only Native kid in the brainiac classes the year before, Lewis had been lonely.

The teasing ways he made friends at the reservation school didn’t work when he tried them out with the white kids in his class at the middle school. He thinks he might have a better year if he cuts the braid he has worn since second grade and tries harder to fit in. He enlists the help of Carson, a Native kid he’s known all his life, but Carson’s cousin, Tami—who doesn’t know tribal ways—takes the scissors and makes the cut before Lewis and Carson have tied off both ends in the way such cuts are customarily done.  Dejected, Lewis leaves Carson’s house and walks home.

On the way home, he passes the reservation’s elementary school, where the teachers are getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. Lewis thinks about how the families on the reservation aren’t impressed by the 200th birthday of the United States, with good reason!  “[W]e’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years" (p. 5).  He thinks back to third grade, when his teacher asked him to demonstrate his fluency with the Tuscarora language at Indian Culture Night. The memory is packed with conflicting emotions. Lewis was happy at the recognition, but history made his mom cynical. She is dismissive of the event and the motivations for it, too. 

I understand her cynicism.

Lot of people think educational programming at schools can help tribes recover what was lost in the boarding school period, when the educational policy was to ‘kill the Indian,’ to ‘save the man.’ Erase their culture, that is, and replace it with ‘the man’ who happens to be the white man.  Lewis's mom is right to be cynical. Teachers in reservation schools and elsewhere have good intentions, but for those of us who have lost language and culture, it is going to take a lot more than Indian Nights at school to recover language and traditions. Too much of what is done to address treatment of American Indians in law, policy, and education--is a band-aid that just won't work. Lewis is fortunate that he knows more than most, but his mom asks, with whom is he going to speak Tuscarora? Other kids on the reservation don’t know it… Deftly and succinctly, Gansworth is hinting that we've got a long way to go in the U.S., with regard to the well-being of American Indians. 

While giving us a lot of information about American Indians, Gansworth also taps into our love of music. 

While he was at Carson’s house, Lewis spied a guitar. He longed to pick it up, but Carson won’t let him. 

That guitar echoes what the book title, and the chapter titles tell us, too: music is a significant part of Lewis’s life. When he gets home, we have another reference to music when his older brother takes one look at his shorn hair and says that Lewis looks like David Bowie on a bad night. Reading that made me laugh out loud. I love Bowie's music. The persona and images he puts forth are always mesmerizing. I'm sure you've got your favorite Bowie pic and song! 

The title for each chapter in the book is the title of a song. At the end of the book, Gansworth provides a discography, which is way cool, but even better than that is knowing he's going to have that discography online! 

Facts of life: being in the armed service, being poor 

On seeing Lewis's bad haircut, his mom gives him a buzz cut, which introduces us to another significant thread: military service. Lewis’s uncle, Albert, was in Viet Nam. He remembers getting a buzz cut, too. Albert lives with them, sharing a room with Lewis. They have a strong relationship that figures prominently several times in the novel. And remember, too, that the relationship at the heart of this novel is between a Native kid and a kid whose father is in the Air Force. 

Last thing to note about the first chapter is that after Lewis’s mom gives him the buzz cut, she says he looks like a Welfare Indian. He replies that they are, in fact, Welfare Indians. As you read, you’ll learn about how poor they are in material things, and how that poverty plays into Lewis’s thinking and experiences as he develops a friendship with the son of a serviceman from the local air force base. And, you'll learn that things like poverty itself is a relative term. People can look like they live in poverty, but there's more to life than things. 

Oh. One more thing before I hit 'upload' on this post: Lewis loves comic books.

So, what do I like about the novel? 

Within children's literature, there's a metaphor about how literature can be a mirror or a window. For some readers, the novel is a mirror of the reader's own life. For another reader, the novel is a window by which the first reader can peer in and see what someone else's life is like. Gansworth's debut novel is  more than a mirror or a window. 

Reading If I Ever Get Out of Here, I sometimes felt it was a mirror. As a Native kid meeting non-Native kids from really different communities than my own, I identified with the things Lewis went through. 

But as a Pueblo Indian woman who grew up on a reservation in northern New Mexico, the novel was more than a window onto the life of a Native family on a reservation hundreds of miles from my own. With his writing, Gansworth brought me inside Lewis's home and heart. Does that mean it was a door that I entered? I don't know. 

Certainly, the music played a part in how he managed to bring me inside. As I read his book, the songs in it played in my head, and when I hear those songs now, on the radio, I'm back in Gansworth's novel. As research studies show, music is a powerful thing. It taps into a part of us, makes us feel things, and know things... 

That's what Gansworth's novel does. I feel and know things I didn't feel or know before. That's what I like about If I Ever Get Out of Here. Thanks, Eric. Thanks, Cheryl, Thanks, Arthur. And thanks, Scholastic, for getting this book in our hands. 

Update: 12:20 PM, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Praise for Gansworth's novel:

On the cover of the ARC (advanced reader copy), Francisco X. Stork says: "The beauty of this novel lies in the powerful friendship between two young men who are so externally different and so internally similar. Wonderful, inspiring, and real."

Online, Cynthia Leitich Smith writes that it is a "heart-healing, moccasins-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on this book! I am always looking for rich, robust, complex and entertaining texts for my children's lit class.

Amy Theisen said...

I had ordered this book for my school library last year, and it was pushed back to a delivery this year. As I was working through the order, I was stopping at looking at each book, after the summer break I didn't remember the new titles. I opened up the dust jacket to see "American Indian". This prompted me to look further, leafing through the pages I found the description of Indian Cultural Night. One of the things that hit me was the fact that the language used was Tuscarora, rather than a generic language, and googled it to find out more about the nation. I then checked out information on the author to see what his credentials were. After reading the first chapter, my first impression was, this sounds terrific, I wonder if Debbie knows about it? Even as this thought passed through my head, I flipped over the book to see a comment from Debbie on the back. My point here though, is through the years of following posts on LM-NET and visiting this blog, I feel that I am more more informed and ready to critically examine books for the school library here. Thank you for that!