Saturday, January 23, 2021

At the Edge of the Haight

  At the Edge of the Haight
Author:  Katherine Seligman
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2021. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643750232 / 978-1643750231

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Root skimmed the sidewalk with this nose, sniffing the food wrappers, a black book, and a pair of red tights someone had tossed in a perfect Z."

Favorite Quote:  "People believed what they saw, but it was not the same as what was really there."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


At the western edge of the Haight in San Francisco lies Golden Gate Park. The Haight-Asbury neighborhood is generally associated with the hippie and counterculture of the 1960s. At this time, the area is "home" to a growing community of homeless individuals. It is in this community that the book is based.

The incident at the center of the plot is from the author's own life. Years ago, as she and her husband were driving home, they encountered a man who was hurt and claimed someone was trying to kill him. When they stopped to help and the police came, they found in the grass the body of a young man who died.

In this book, this incident is witnessed by Maddy Donaldo, a twenty year old homeless girl. She comes from Los Angeles and now survives in Golden Gate Park. In her own way, she has found a community and a family in the other homeless in that park.

More than the death of a young man, this book is about a slice of life picture of Maddy and the life of the homeless. It is about the reasons a person may find herself in this situation. It is about those - parents, churches, shelters, police officers, and others - who offer assistance and a road back "inside." It is about the reasons that an individual chooses to take the help or to remain outside.

That being said, the book does seem to have a rather sanitized approach to telling this story. It makes the situation of the homeless seems less dire than it is. Maddy and her friends drift from helping hand to helping hand, but a helping hand is always there. They seem to use the resources available as they find suitable. Some manage to go home, only to leave again at will. They manage to stay just on the right side of the law or at least come out without dire consequences. The doors to help always remain open. They seem to have a community, a family, and a "home" in the park.

In the afterword of the book, the author gives some facts. "In California, the world's fifth largest economy, the population of unsheltered people reportedly grew by 16 percent from 2018 to 2019; when community groups gathers one chilly December night in 2019 for a yearly vigil to remember those who died outside or in marginal housing, they called out 275 names." This intensity and this loss is not what seems captured in the book. The book was the winner of the 2019 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The social message was just not the one I expected.

This makes me wonder at the target audience for this book. The rose-colored telling or the messaging that help is always available seems more suitable to a young adult audience. It seems to reiterate to young people that there are always alternatives. The book itself seems to be one of the "helpers" putting the message out there for the young people, who choose or are forced into this life. If that is the case, the book gets its message across.

About the Author

Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author who lives in San Francisco. She has been a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and a correspondent at USA Today. Her work has appeared in Redbook, Life, Money, California Magazine, the anthology Fresh Takes and elsewhere.

About the Book

The 10th Winner of the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Awarded by Barbara Kingsolver

“What a read this is, right from its startling opening scene. But even more than plot, it’s the richly layered details that drive home a lightning bolt of empathy. To read At the Edge of the Haight is to live inside the everyday terror and longings of a world that most of us manage not to see, even if we walk past it on sidewalks every day. At a time when more Americans than ever find themselves at the edge of homelessness, this book couldn’t be more timely.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, author of Unsheltered and The Poisonwood Bible

Maddy Donaldo, homeless at twenty, has made a family of sorts in the dangerous spaces of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She knows whom to trust, where to eat, when to move locations, and how to take care of her dog. It’s the only home she has. When she unwittingly witnesses the murder of a young homeless boy and is seen by the perpetrator, her relatively stable life is upended. Suddenly, everyone from the police to the dead boys’ parents want to talk to Maddy about what she saw. As adults pressure her to give up her secrets and reunite with her own family before she meets a similar fate, Maddy must decide whether she wants to stay lost or be found. Against the backdrop of a radically changing San Francisco, a city which embraces a booming tech economy while struggling to maintain its culture of tolerance, At the Edge of the Haight follows the lives of those who depend on makeshift homes and communities.

As judge Hillary Jordan says, “This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear, or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”

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