“Unless you’re into meth or having sex with people you’re related to, you’ll find shit’s pretty boring here” in Idaho Springs, says 16-year-old Margaritte, matter-of-factly, as she introduces a boy to the downtrodden Rocky Mountain town just west of Denver.

Margaritte is the protagonist of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, the debut novel by Colorado native Erika Wurth, a poet who teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University.

Funny, tough, realistic and heartbreakingly foolish, Margaritte is a high school drug dealer on the fast track to teenage motherhood and welfare; her dad, a white man, is drunk and abusive, while her Indian mother ceaselessly forgives and enables him.

Like the author, Margaritte is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee; her best friend is her adopted cousin, Jake. “He’s Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and black. And big.” Margaritte talks tough and acts superior to the other impoverished residents of her town: “I knew where that kind of thinking led. To a doublewide trailer and miles and miles of cheap macaroni and cheese, 10 for a dollar.” However, her knowledge fails to inform her behavior; again and again, she makes the wrong choices.

For nearly 300 pages, Margaritte speeds toward impending doom, pausing along the way for multiple pit stops at the emergency room, a detour to an abortion clinic, various alcohol- and drug-fueled forays, and a flight with her mother and younger twin sisters to a hotel—followed by their drunk, gun-toting father.

Yet Margaritte’s kindness and compassion prevail. Even after her alcoholic father literally drives the family into a ditch during a thunderstorm, she thinks, “Sometimes my sadness for him overwhelmed my resentment, and that was even worse.” She and the new boy fall in love. His family, wealthy and white, buys him expensive outdoor gear, but he’s never slept outside. Margaritte takes him camping on Mount Evans. Sitting beside the campfire, she finds bliss. “I felt so content, so beautiful, parts of me felt like they were dying off, exploding.”

As Margaritte careens into and out of disaster, her strong fingers grip the reader’s heart from the very first sentence, never letting go. She skids close to the edge of unredeemable stereotype, then screeches decisively to a halt, exploding into brilliant humanity.

Exhilarated and terrified, readers of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend will be grateful for the ride.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend

By Erika T. Wurth

Curbside Splendor

288 pages, $15.95