René Steinke doesn't like to repeat herself. Her debut novel, "The Fires," drew readers into the mind of a pyromaniac through a haunting first-person narration. Her second, "Holy Skirts," sympathetically reimagined a marginal figure in the early 20th century avant-garde who was usually dismissed as a nut job.
Now, in "Friendswood," Steinke examines a Texas town grappling with the legacy of toxic waste and a sordid incident of sexual abuse. She unsparingly but understandingly depicts a community divided between people who want to ignore unpleasant facts and the mavericks who insist on facing reality.
Lee Knowles lost her 16-year-old daughter Jess to a rare blood disease caused by chemicals thrown into a pit and dumped into the water by a local company beginning in the 1950s. Their neighborhood, Rosemont, was so badly contaminated that it was eventually abandoned, the houses razed and the area listed as a Superfund site.
Ten years later, the EPA declares that "burying the chemicals in approved containers" has made it safe for Taft Properties to build new houses near the remains of poisoned Rosemont. Lee disagrees, showing the city council photographs of cracks and stains on a container that resurfaced during a recent hurricane. But the container is no longer visible, and everyone is eager to profit from the 2007 real estate boom that allegedly will bring jobs to Friendswood. No one wants to hear Lee's warnings — after all, even her husband, Jack, grew so tired of her obsession that he left her.
No one wants to hear about Willa Lambert's ordeal either. Surely it's her own fault that she accepted football star Cully Holbrook's invitation to leave high school for lunch at a friend's house, where someone drugged her drink and several of the boys raped her while she was passed out. Cully and his friends are suspended for a mere two weeks, "because, officially, the principal knew about the drinking and the truancy, and nothing else."
Willa's parents won't let her talk to the police; their hellfire-breathing pastor urges her "to pray and look inside of yourself … find out what it was that made you go to that party."
This might make "Friendswood" sound like a facile condemnation of small-town bigotry and boosterism, particularly when we read the chapters told from the point of view of Cully's father, Hal, a real estate agent desperate to land Avery Taft's business. "I'm not convinced there's any more cancer now than there ever was," he says; he dislikes Lee as a troublemaker and advises the distraught Cully not to tell anyone what really happened that afternoon, reassuring him, "There always were and always would be girls like that." But Cully's increasing remorse underscores Steinke's essentially optimistic message: People may be confused and willing to accept misleading reassurances, but once they know the real story, most of them want to do the right thing.
From the beginning, Lee has allies. An EPA employee actually visits the area to fact-check his organization's optimistic assessments; a council member feeds her new findings that show the area is still contaminated and the toxins are worse than initially reported.
Willa has allies too. When a classmate's mother says, "boys can't be expected to control themselves," another mom snaps, "Men have been using that excuse for years." Most vocal of all is Dex, an attendee at the lunch who walks out when he realizes what's going on and tries to report Willa's abuse at the local precinct.
Even more than Lee, who acknowledges that her crusade is fueled by rage and loss, teenage Dex is the novel's voice of wisdom and rectitude, unintimidated by the boys who scorn him as a prig and a tattletale.
Things get worse before they get better. Taft Avery menaces Lee with a lawsuit; she finds herself scanning websites that offer instructions on sabotage. Placed on home study, aware of the rumors circulating about her, Willa falls prey to apocalyptic visions of strange creatures and wakes to find mysterious messages scrawled on her arm. Even Lee's best friend admits that she and her husband are thinking of reserving one of the new Taft Properties houses. Steinke doesn't underestimate the power of money and willed blindness.
Yet she leaves room for decency and redemption as well in a deftly plotted finale that brings together the two story lines and provides measured resolution for both. "Friendswood" doesn't promise that all wounds will be healed, in the land or its inhabitants, but Steinke's sensitive exploration of tangled human connections reminds us that love and friendship will go a long way toward seeing us through our trials.
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for The Times and the Washington Post.
Riverhead Books: 350 pp., $27.95