“Cut it off,” I yelled.
That’s the first sentence of the marvelous first Young Adult novel by local author Eric Gansworth, a member of the Onondaga Nation who grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation. Lewis Blake, facing another year of junior high school as the only reservation kid on the “smart track” in a classroom of white kids, is asking a friend to hack off his braid.
Thus the reader is immediately plunged into Lewis’ life uncomfortably straddling two worlds – “the rez,” with close relationships with extended family and long traditions but a falling-down house he is forbidden to bring an outsider to, and the white world of school where the universal challenges of adolescence are magnified by prejudice and ultimately, violent bullying.
It’s a lonely place for a boy to be, and Lewis is on a mission to find a friend. Gansworth does a marvelous job crafting the dog-eat-dog environment of middle school (where Lewis’ attempt to disguise his Tuscarora background can be sabotaged by a well-meaning teacher at any minute) and peopling his book with a colorful gallery of believable major and minor characters including Lewis’ Uncle Albert, a Vietnam veteran on disability.
The author also offers a rare thing in YA fiction, a realistic tale of adolescent male friendship, of the fumbling, false starts, missed cues and finally true connection, as Lewis slowly gets to know another “new kid” – George Haddonfield, the only child of a kindly but strict Air Force officer who lives at a military housing complex called Red Tail Manor.
Along with introducing an unforgettable voice in Lewis Blake and a revelatory coming-of-age story of the Native American experience, Gansworth offers to Western New York readers the pleasure of a familiar landscape (including the former Twin Fair and Jupiter stores in Niagara Falls) and such local references as pizza and wings, the Buffalo Bills and the Blizzard of ’77.
This fine novel is not only a touching tale of friendship and an inspirational story of a boy finding his way against daunting odds, it’s a celebration of music (specifically the Beatles, Paul McCartney and Wings) and its power to nourish, inspire and bring people together.
We can only hope Gansworth will take up Lewis’ story again a few more years down the road.
Jean Westmoore is The News’ children’s book reviewer.