The homeless are more often discussed than understood. No doubt that’s why Katherine Seligman’s “At the Edge of the Haight” received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her absorbing novel introduces us to a group of young people living in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. We learn their names and family backgrounds. We witness their daily trials and become immersed in the odyssey of their lives.
Maddy Donaldo, the narrator and protagonist, is a 20-year-old woman without a home. When she was young, her truck driver father abandoned the family. Her mother found work as a cashier at Safeway but then suffered a psychotic break. After Maddy aged out of the foster care system in Los Angeles, she boarded a bus to San Francisco.
In San Francisco, she learns how to survive in the park and nearby streets. She finds a group of young people with whom she feels some connection, especially a young man from Arizona named Ash. In the park, they hide their sleeping bags on tree branches by day and sleep under trees at night. The individuals in the group seem both detached and dependent on one another. With no notice, they disappear and reappear in each other’s lives. Their choices are frustrating. Many are emotionally wounded and use drugs and alcohol to ease their pains.
Though Maddy sometimes sleeps at a Haight shelter, she feels safer in the park. She does, however, take advantage of the shelter’s showers, clothing and free food. Police harassment and threats of violence from other homeless people make each day a challenge. Given the persistent emotional isolation Maddy has endured, she has few expectations for her life. She is tough and resilient but also tender and vulnerable. Her dog Root, whom she found when she first arrived in The City, is her most reliable companion.
Maddy’s life changes dramatically when she follows Root into a cluster of bushes in the park. There she sees a young man on the ground bleeding to death; his assailant stands nearby. The plot develops as Maddy struggles with the aftermath of this traumatic incident. The police want Maddy to testify, the dead boy’s parents want to adopt her, and the murderer wants to make sure she doesn’t tell anyone what she saw. Navigating these conflicting demands causes Maddy to expand her thinking and imagine alternatives for her life.
As the story unfolds, Seligman shows the many causes of housing instability for young adults. Many young people are thrown out of their homes. Some have mental illnesses. Some come from poverty, but not all. Sometimes their parents have their own financial troubles and emotional afflictions. Other parents can no longer deal with their child’s behavioral or neurological differences. But whatever their prior struggles, all these young adults share the belief that they have no other place to go. To complicate matters, many are wary of help. Maddy wrestles with such feelings before fate turns in her favor.
“At the Edge of the Haight” is not a political polemic or policy paper; rather, it is a book about people living on the edge. Seligman’s skills as a journalist are evident in the story’s realism. Her detailed descriptions allow the reader to imagine the harrowing day-to-day lives of those living with constant housing insecurity. Seligman has created characters for whom the reader feels empathy and engagement. Without being heavy-handed, she is challenging us to understand, rather than ignore or condemn. When Maddy was young, her mother said to her, “You can’t judge people because you just never know why they do what they do.” Katherine Seligman has written a novel that does not judge but instead offers insight.
Katherine Read blogs about books at readsreading.blogspot.com.
At the Edge of the Haight
Written by: Katherine Seligman
Published by: Algonquin Books