Junkyard Dogs Review

Book: Junkyard Dogs
Author: Katherine Higgs-Coulthard
Publisher: Peachtree Teen
Year: 2023
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: “Josh’s father has gone missing without a trace. Now Josh and his 9-year-old brother, Twig, are stuck living with Gran in her trailer. Problem is, Gran didn’t ask to take care of any kids, and she’s threatening to call social services unless Josh can find his dad. After paying off his Gran to take in his little brother, Josh risks truancy and getting kicked off his basketball team to take to the streets and hunt for his dad. But when Josh digs too deep, he suddenly finds himself tethered to a liminal scrapping ring that his father was accomplice to. If Josh wants to keep Twig out of the system and return to some sense of normal, he’ll have to track his dad down and demand honest answers.”

Review: Set in a town not all that far from where I’ve lived, Junkyard Dogs feels eerily close to home. Set in South Bend, Indiana, this book tells the story of a pair of brothers experiencing houselessness during a brutal midwest winter. As I was on my way to a coffee shop to write this review, in fact, I passed a billboard that said 7,800 youth and young adults in my town would experience houselessness this year alone. It hits close to home in more ways than one.

Coming from the midwest herself, Higgs-Coulthard hits the nail on the head with her depictions of this part of the country, including how easy it is for many living in a semi-large city to absolutely miss the fact that so many of it’s residents are struggling and just barely scraping by. While this story centers around one particular incident with Josh and Twig, as Josh reminisces about the past with a mother who died when he was young and a father who ran a junkyard during Josh’s formative years, it’s clear that the blurred lines between temporary housing and houselessness are grey at best. This is a liminal space of transience, shifting from a junkyard house on the brink of condemnation by the city to a trailer owned by their Gran to an abandoned warehouse, to tent city under an overpass, to no shelter at all, we see all the ways in which someone without stability grapples to survive in a world that requires a lot of money and connections to get by.

Junkyard Dogs is somewhat infuriating in that as readers we’re privy to all the ways in which the world beats Josh down; from his Gran telling him he’s garbage and worse on a daily basis, to his dad who runs off early on in the book without even leaving Josh with enough money to pay for rent to keep him and his little brother housed at his Gran’s trailer, to the shelter that requires an adult for any minor to eat. It’s hard to read at times.

I think Higgs-Coulthard has created a book that’s deeply human, moving, and gripping; emerging us in a mystery that takes an entire book to unravel completely. While I was able to figure out the central twist pretty early on, I don’t think it ruined the book in any way, and I sort of suspect that Higgs-Coulthard meant for her readers to grasp the twist at least part way through the plot. While this book does end with a pretty neat ending that I think is unlikely to be reality for most unhoused youth, making it pretty unrealistic in my opinion, I did enjoy the way in which she chose to end the story. It isn’t easy, but it’s certainly the best case scenario. I think the book could have been more impactful by being more realistic in it’s ending, but I also think as a young adult read it almost demanded a hopeful ending. It ends by giving us some sense of hope for humanity, hope for the way people experience each other, and hope for the empathy the world might bestow upon people who are down on their luck.

Advice: If you are empathetic at all, this may very well not be a book for you, particularly if you don’t enjoy crying over books. If you enjoy a book with a hopeful ending, with hope for a better future in spite of a tough start, this might be the book for you! If you enjoy stories about real things, about real problems that impact real people, this is probably a great place to start.