A hurricane uncovers widespread pollution in a small Texas town, and a lot of human toxicity as well.
The third novel by Steinke (The Fires, 1999; Holy Skirts, 2005) alternates perspectives among a host of residents of Friendswood, where high school football, property values and Jesus Christ compete for the locals’ esteem. Steinke zooms in on two in particular, though. Lee is a middle-aged woman who’s been investigating carcinogen levels at a former refinery site since her teenage daughter died of cancer; Lee’s discovery after the storm of a new batch of dumped chemicals has riled the town, particularly the local magnate who wants a housing development at the location. Meanwhile, Willa is a high school girl whose eagerness to get to know a boy leads to a drugged drink and gang rape by members of the football team. Steinke emphasizes the parallels in these two plotlines: Both exemplify the horrid consequences of a go-along-to-get-along culture where women are expected not to protest, and religion is deployed as an excuse to avoid asking difficult questions. A few of the characters symbolizing that ethos are a bit cardboard, particularly the parents oblivious to Willa’s emotional despair and the condescending men telling Lee she’s going too far. But the novel gets its spark from Lee genuinely going too far; Steinke expertly weaves in the stresses of Lee’s past and present as she warms to the idea of committing acts of eco-terrorism. Steinke’s message that the truth will out gives her novel the comfort of a commercial page-turner, but she hasn’t simplified her lead characters to sell the notion. Willa in particular suffers from horrifying visions of creatures stalking her, and though she may learn to keep them at bay, it’s clear some damage sticks around for a long time.
A sharp, observant novel about the hard realities of challenging the status quo.