Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Friendswood.
The heavy hand of death still weighs on the Texas towns of Rosemont and nearby Friendswood. In 1993, as toxic waste polluted the soil in Rosemont, people were slow to awaken to the danger until precious lives were lost and an outcry arose. A decade later, those most afflicted—those who lost loved ones—still deal with the pain of their personal tragedies. Time has tamped the fear, a new generation less conscious of that scandalous past, less vigilant that it might happen again.
A pariah, Lee Knowles remains a thorn in the side of the town, haunting council meetings, collecting soil samples, challenging the EPA’s reports of healthy land on which to rebuild. No longer with her husband, Jack, Lee feels the loss of their teen daughter, Jessie, as though no time has elapsed. Worse, the soil samples and photographs she has taken to prove that the contamination has not been eradicated are willfully ignored by the mayor, the city council, and locals worrying over employment opportunities. With little to lose, Lee dances around the edges of ever more extreme measures necessary to sound the alarm, desperate to draw attention to signs of more poison erupting from the very areas of Rosemont scheduled for new construction.
Meanwhile, a local real estate developer is lobbying hard for the sale of new houses, the potential profit a siren song he sings to any who will listen. That includes Lee’s nearest neighbor, Hal, a former drinker who has found salvation in the words of his end-of-times pastor, happily embracing a righteous and prayerful life. Many in this part of the country put their faith in the good book, heeding the call of salvation and eschewing the worldly ways that corrupt the less diligent. Hal needs the real estate magnate’s good will to ensure his family’s prosperity, willing to ignore any issues on the land for the sake of opportunity.
Then there is fifteen-year-old Willa, an impressionable girl with a crush on the star football player, Hal’s son Cully. In thrall to young manhood, Cully is careless of Willa’s feelings or reputation, seducing her into an afternoon away from school that will have serious and troubling repercussions for Willa and the young men who excuse their actions with drunkenness and bravado. Overwhelmed by the consequences of her trust in Cully’s good intentions, Willa is increasingly troubled by visions, unable to face her classmates and unable to accuse anyone of wrongdoing. With only her friend Dani and classmate Dex, Willa’s blooming beauty is in danger of shriveling beneath the harsh scrutiny of others.
In a town cloaked in denial, where jobs and opportunities are scarce, Lee and Willa’s tragedies disturb the scripted harmony of Friendswood. Their troubles leach into the lives of those around them in unexpected ways, redemption wrapped in accidental meetings, hearts becalmed by circumstance and the immutability of life’s momentum. Steinke holds these characters in the palm of her hand, leading them to moments of epiphany and grace, even in a world beset by environmental threat. Greed coexists with hope, fear with possibility, and sorrow with comfort in a novel filled not with despair but with the potential of the human heart for change.