Erika T. Wurth creates a coming-of-age story that is both gritty and complex in her debut novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. Set in an impoverished town outside of Denver during the ‘90s, the 16-year-old protagonist, Margaritte, is on a mission. If she can make enough money before she turns 18, she will have the means to seek happiness and stability somewhere away from home. Every night Margaritte sneaks out of her bedroom window at night to sell pot at parties with her cousin. To make matters worse, she has to tell her boyfriend she’s pregnant. Will she be able to get out of her hometown with a child? Should she get an abortion? What will her family think? Will her dad disown her… or worse? Margaritte balances the cumulative weight of these questions as she tries to navigate her daily life without letting anyone in on her secret.
The title, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, is a nod toward the Native American war hero, Crazy Horse, implying that Margaritte is also in the midst of conflict, the unlikely protagonist in a “Hero’s Story” structure. But it’s not just Magaritte who is figuratively at war, it’s everyone in town. Most young adult novels fall short of realism, romanticizing youth in an unfair way, where white rich kids go to boarding school and discover their true potential while one character falls off the rails. This book is not like that- there is a sense of relatability here. Even the characters that aren’t as important to the main plot are dealt their own dose of problems, whether it’s exploring sexual orientation, racism, co-dependence, substance abuse, or teenage pregnancy.
Erika T. Worth’s prose is simple and callous. She’s not afraid to sling swear words or uncomfortable situations at her characters in an effort to write about one of the most unsentimental teenage existences in YA history. Being set in the “‘90s”, the novel also serves as a period piece, where cellphones are non-existent, heroin is popular, and mixtapes are king. Adults, especially millennials, are sure to find this novel relatable. Wurth’s characters wear wife beaters from Wal-Mart, listen to Christian Metal and lick the Dorito dust off their fingers. They aren’t overtly sophisticated by any means, and even Mike, Margaritte’s boyfriend who seems to have a picturesque house and family, is not as refined as he appears. Adolescence is not fantasized and this novel does not evoke the mythical “glory days” of being a highschooler, in fact, it turns that stereotype completely on its head.
Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend deals with alcoholism in a way that most young adult novels avoid.
“I wondered why Mom had married Dad. She had told me once that she’d gotten pregnant with me while she was finishing up her teacher’s certification in Denver and after that, he proposed. But that she loved him. That she definitely loved him. She told me about watching Mel Brooks movies together and other artsy stuff like that, about dancing with him by the gulf on a pier in Texas, where her family was from, about how shy and quiet he was. How he held her and told her that she was home on their wedding night. How he drank and though it seemed like he drank a lot, it hadn’t seemed like too much until later, much later, when he began to hit her after I was born.”
Here, alcoholism is treated as a complex issue- Margaritte’s father is not treated as an inherently “bad” person. Wurth may be making less of a statement about the complexities of addiction and more of a statement on the depths of human nature. It is unclear how much of the novel is autobiographical (Wurth being a Native American living outside of Denver), but interpretation and Wurth’s intentions aside, her characters are the people in your neighborhood, your acquaintances, and your family.
Despite each character’s blatant faults, there’s always something frustratingly humanizing about each character that transcends their shortcomings. These characters may be lost somewhere in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, but they are not lost at heart. There is a softness and tenderness to each, in a way that is not unlike Bonnie Jo Campbell’s characters in American Salvage and less like John Green’s idealized teenagers in Looking for Alaska. Wurth has accomplished a feat that most young adult authors wish that they could- she has realistically portrayed the teenage experience.