A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
At the Edge of the Haight offers an eye-opening view of the daily challenges of life on the streets of San Francisco, the varied circumstances that put people there, and the coping strategies/social services involved. In particular, the problem of kids who have never had a real home aging out of the foster care system, and the assorted predators that await them on the street.
Readers will come away with a lot of empathy for the overwhelming lives of kids on the street, in which hope is fleeting and may be an illusion. Every unhoused person has a story of what led them to that point.
Positive Role Models
Occasional moments of spontaneous kindness add a bit of light to the grimness -- like giving your filthy friend your place in the shower line at the homeless shelter. In spite of and/or because of her dysfunctional parents and experiences in foster care, Maddy has a strong determination, self-respect, and anti-authoritarian streak, which serves her well on some occasions and less so on others. Like her friends, she steals, drinks, takes drugs, does questionable things to survive, and somewhere in there tries to do the right thing and keep hoping for a real home. Her friends are thieves, grifters, and drug users -- with whom she builds a shaky but real support system. Her dog Root is probably the most reliable friend and protector she's got, and he's usually in peril as a result. A sympathetic formerly unhoused case worker tries to help Maddy. The bereaved parents of the murder victim are well meaning, struggling, and no less clueless than everybody else about how to make anything better. From violent, substance-abusing gangs and weapon-toting, mentally ill adults on the street to parents who are either dysfunctionally uncaring, alcoholic, controlling, or just plain desperate to get their kid back, there's a lot of destructive behavior.
Violence & Scariness
A young woman comes across a stabbing victim in Golden Gate Park and encounters the man who did the stabbiing. That puts her in even more danger than what she usually faces living "outside" in San Francisco. A gang extorts food and money from the unhoused. An adult character was violently abusive to his now ex-wife. A man claims he stabbed a man when he found him masturbating near a playground. A family raises a turkey as a pet and eats him for Thanksgiving. A young woman's pet rat is lost and killed when she overdoses; another's canine protector saves her from an attacker by biting him, and is carted off to the pound. Life on the street is a vicious cycle, grindingly destructive of any hopeful glimmer that presents itself.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Maddy and her on-again/off-again male companion have sex, briefly described. She mentions not wanting to repeat the experience because she doesn't want to get pregnant like another friend whose parents are raising her kid. She also gets a case of crab lice from the incident.
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Plentiful "f--k," "s--t," and variants. "Ass," "asshole," "pissed," "crap."
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Products & Purchases
Occasional scene-setting mention of brand names. e.g. car makes and McDonald's.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters in their 20s and older drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, and take a lot of drugs of dubious origin, including opioids. A character takes a pill with an unknown mix of drugs and never really recovers. Bottles and joints are shared a lot. A character's long-lost parent is a lifelong drunk who's abandoned his family and continued to go down the path of substance abuse. Adult characters smoke cigarettes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Katherine Seligman's At the Edge of the Haight, which received the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is a bleak, harrowing, empathetic tale of 20-somethings living "outside" in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, who panhandle and hang around on nearby Haight Street. The novel is aimed at adults but also finding an audience with teens. Two of the four friends who band together for self-protection, including Maddy, the 20-year-old main character and narrator who's lived in the park since she was 18, are former foster kids who aged out of the system without acquiring survival skills beyond stealing, grifting, begging, and working the system. One of the others has a controlling mom into tough love, who periodically snatches him from the street (it doesn't last) but also sends him food and money. The other has apparently caring parents who are raising the child she conceived on the streets, but prefers the street to life with them. Gangs beat and extort the unhoused. Maddy's discovery of a stabbed, dying young man leads to many of the book's events, including being stalked by the stabber. The victim's parents try to get a bit of their lost son back by befriending Maddy and her three pals, some of whom regard them as natural prey and are happy to fleece and exploit them. The four friends and other characters smoke (weed and tobacco), drink alcohol, and take random drugs, including fentanyl and a mysterious pill that leaves one of them permanently impaired. They also use a lot of strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," "piss," and "asshole"). Two characters have sex; at least one of them gets crab lice as a result. A character is suspected of creepy sexual behavior with young girls. One adult character is a domestic abuser whose wife finally fled. Through it all, Maddy holds a vague, forlorn hope of having a real home someday. She takes it upon herself to look for clues to the murder because she feels it's the right thing to do, and tries to take care of the dog who's her main protector. There are no quick solutions or easy answers in this cautionary tale, but it's a revealing look at troubingly intractable issues.
Is It Any Good?
Katherine Seligman's empathetic, harrowing portrait of young adults living on San Francisco's streets offers an emotionally complex look at issues and relationships that defy easy answers. Residing At the Edge of the Haight, narrator and former foster kid Maddy's discovery of a murder victim sets events, relationships, and perspectives in motion amid the grinding daily struggle for survival. Her friends are profoundly broken, but their determination to live on their own terms, whatever tradeoffs that involves, offers a lot to think about. There are lots of flashbacks to Maddy's childhood with her mentally ill mother and in foster families. Here, Maddy turns 18 and bails on foster care forever:
"Karen wanted me to work at a hair salon and learn a skill so I could support myself, and probably so I could take care of her hair that looked like a dried-up palm tree. But I was not a hair salon kind of person. I couldn't tell what would make anyone look better.
"'Missy thinks she knows it all,' she said.
"She didn't expect I'd stuff clothes in my school backpack and buy a bus ticket north. I never called or wrote a letter to tell her where I was. My life with her was over and there was nothing she could do. I sat awake all night on the bus, afraid to close my eyes while it climbed past the foothills, through the huge dirt fields of the valley and back over to the coast. I had heard about San Francisco, how you can just live your life, because everyone isn't watching you all the time."
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