Gang wars, drive-by shootings, drug sales, poverty—San Bernardino County was, as Keenan Norris explains in his debut novel, Brother and the Dancer, “one of the most violent places in America at the millennium. The area surrounding his hometown of Highland, Calif.—50 miles northwest of Palm Springs—he notes ruefully, was “an hour east of a city that actually mattered.”

Into this fraught setting, he places two African-American children, Erycha and Touissant, separated by the severe economic and class delineations of West Highland and East Highland. He weaves their coming-of-age stories into a gripping meditation on isolation, society and history. Erycha “needed to talk to somebody about these things,” he writes, “to speak on what she wanted and how that agreed and disagreed with what her community wanted, and about the smallness of youth culture and the wild troublesome loveliness of black culture … .”

Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award sponsored by Heyday Books, a nonprofit publisher that focuses on California’s landscapes and cultures. Norris, who edited the anthology Street Lit: Popularity, Controversy and Analysis, teaches English and African-American Literature at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif. He writes lyrically, juxtaposing characters and imagery to evoke surprising comparisons.

“Desperate girls were common as hot days in the desert,” he writes of Erycha. A preference for seclusion and the economic necessity of interdependence shape the girl’s adolescence, during which she meets Touissant at a UC-Riverside orientation and exchanges fictions with him. Though their physical paths diverge quickly, thematic parallels inform their lives throughout the novel.

Desperation assumes multiple forms in Brother and the Dancer. Erycha struggles to survive with a shiftless father and an exhausted mother, braiding hair and walking dogs to earn ballet slippers for an art form that ultimately disappoints her. Across town, Touissant, a high school football star, finds himself similarly disillusioned. He dates an Anglo woman before a racially motivated attack changes everything, leading him to reject his comfortable middle-class life and search for a new identity in the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and in the city of New Orleans.

Often heartbreaking, Brother and the Dancer nevertheless offers a message of hope. Norris has crafted a powerful story of two young adults whom readers will find memorable for the surprising ways in which they reconcile their love of solitude with a strong need for community.

This article originally appeared High Country News.

Brother and the Dancer

By Keenan Norris

Heyday Books

256 pages, $15 (paperback)