Today, we review two books that examine the environmental destruction of small towns, and the ensuing fallout in the community at large. In Rene Steinke’s Friendswood, the eponymous town has been the victim of chemical leaks from a nearby oil refinery. Most of the town seems ready to move on once the EPA has cleared the town for redevelopment, but protagonist Lee (whose daughter may have died from exposure to the chemicals) continues to crusade against the refinery, a crusade which leads eventually to tragedy. Meanwhile, in Christopher Scotton’s The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a small Appalachian town is being strip-mined for coal, and the opposition (much more organized than Lee’s one-man stand) once again leads to tragic results.
Both novels ask the reader to consider the ways in which rural American towns are seen by urban America: not just as fodder to be used and abused by large corporations, but as essentially worth less than our large “modern” cities. And both use their broad narrative of environmental disaster as a setting for the more mundane tragedies of daily life in these towns.
STEINKE, René. Friendswood. 368p. Riverhead. Aug. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9781594632518. LC 2014012106
Many years ago, Lee’s daughter Jess succumbed to a brain tumor that Lee believes resulted from the effects of chemicals left behind by a nearby refinery. Since then, she has been fighting City Hall to create awareness of those chemicals and the damage they have done to the residents of their town, Friendswood, Texas. The protagonist’s research and reports about multiple incidents of cancer, brain tumors, and unexplained rashes have fallen on deaf ears. When the EPA clears the way for new building upon that site, Lee is determined to fight even harder. But to most townspeople the refinery dump-site is not an issue. Hal, a realtor, looks forward to the possibility of selling many homes in the area, and teens Willa, Cully, and Dex are just trying to understand their lives. Told from these five character viewpoints, Friendswood takes readers into the lives of these people who live under the shadow of a resurfacing superfund site. Hal grapples with his faith and ambition; Willa has strange hallucinations; Cully rethinks his life in the aftermath of violent bad choices; and Dex struggles with understanding his family. Lee’s eco-terrorism sparks a climax that allows each character to discover that maybe life has something to offer them, while opening the eyes of this small town to the destruction in their backyard. Young adults can identify with the teen characters and for those who like environmental activism, this book will get them thinking.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
SCOTTON, Christopher. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. 468p. Grand Central. Jan. 2015. Tr $26. ISBN 9781455551927. LC 2014012917.
It’s been two months since Kevin and his mother witnessed the horrific death of his little brother. They have moved to Appalachian Kentucky to spend the summer with Pops, Kevin’s maternal grandfather, with the hope of healing. This is a tall order as Kevin’s mother is so grief-stricken she can hardly function, and his absentee father, who blames him for the death, provides no support. Luckily, Pops is a wise and lovable man who is the best candidate to aid in the teen’s redemption. The protagonist meets Buzzy whose friendship is immediate and fast. However, there is a dark underbelly to this 1985 coal mining town, including a murder and an evil coal mine owner who is destroying the area. Pops, Kevin, and Buzzy set out for a trip into the remote areas of the hollows to experience the beauty of the region. They see a person watching their every move who soon begins firing at them. Buzzy is convinced the shooter is after him, so he takes off to confront him. Pops is shot and it is up to Kevin to save him. This is a treacherous, page-turning journey and one can only admire Kevin’s pluck and bravery. Overwritten, wordy, and full of caricatures, this debut is also highly readable and has some appealing, authentic characters. Teens might find 14-year-old Kevin overly sophisticated, but the action and setting are intriguing and credible.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA