Chemical Dump Poisons A Texas Town In 'Friendswood' NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to Rene Steinke about her new book, Friendswood. The novel follows four characters who must deal with the legacy of a toxic leak in their small Texas town.

Chemical Dump Poisons A Texas Town In 'Friendswood'

Chemical Dump Poisons A Texas Town In 'Friendswood'

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NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to Rene Steinke about her new book, Friendswood. The novel follows four characters who must deal with the legacy of a toxic leak in their small Texas town.


Next, a book called "Friendswood" by Rene Steinke. Friendswood is a Texas town not quite on the gulf, almost part of Houston. It's the writer's home town. In the book, the town is next to a serious pollution site where chemical byproducts of oil refining were dumped on the land and into the water. One of the leading characters believes that chemical dump caused her daughter's death. Now a local man wants to build houses on the site again. When I spoke with Steinke, she began by telling me about her inspiration for the book, the real town called Friendswood.

RENE STEINKE: I grew up in Friendswood, Texas and left when I was about 20. The Friendswood in the book resembles more the Friendswood of my upbringing, a little bit more rural than it is today. The environmental catastrophe that takes place in the book did actually happen in the town - something very similar. Basically, petroleum chemicals were dumped in a field next to a subdivision. And when people started to become ill, the houses had to be abandoned and most of them were demolished. And it was a big news story in the early '90s.

WERTHEIMER: Now you're telling a kind of biblical tale here. Some terrible sin has been committed against the Earth and, of course, against the people who live on its. And then there is an act of God, a hurricane that brings all the poisons to the surface again. And then we watch the people in Friendswood try to deal with it.

STEINKE: Right. Well, Lee is a grieving mother whose teenage daughter has died from a terrible blood disease that she believes was caused by the chemicals in the field next to where they lived. And she will basically do anything to do what's right. And she will risk anything.

WERTHEIMER: And what's right, as far she's concerned, is that no one ever lives on that land again?

STEINKE: Exactly. And that no one builds on that land again. And Hal is on the opposite side. He believes that people need jobs and that the building should happen, that the chemicals were buried and it's safe now. And he wants success in real estate. And he wants to take care of his family. And he believes that if he prays hard enough, you know, and he prays a lot in the car, that prosperity will come to him.

WERTHEIMER: I think this is a character that a lot of us could think of somebody in our own home towns is sort of like this. He was a football star in high school. He's one of those people for whom high school was kind of a high point. And he hasn't been able to be as successful in life as he was in high school. And it makes him incredibly sad.

STEINKE: He tries very hard to cheer himself up, which, in some ways, is the saddest thing. He's a recovering alcoholic, and he sees his son out on the field. And that brings back all kinds of memories from how he played. He sort of tries to replace the comradery of football with the comradery of things like barbecue. And I think that's why he's so invested in success in real estate because he is just trying so hard to recapture that thing he had in his youth. And the man he's trying to impress and the builder who's in charge of basically helping him, Avery Taft, was on the football team with him. But he wasn't as good as Hal, and it really irks him that now Avery Taft is the successful one.

WERTHEIMER: I must say that you do cook up a fine sort of brimstone-laced conclusion for this book. So what I'm wondering is are you going to go to your next high school reunion?

STEINKE: (Laughter) Well, you know, so far, the reaction of people in Friendswood has been very positive. I've even received a few letters from people who lived in the actual neighborhood that sort of inspired the neighborhood that's destroyed in the book. And they've said they're really happy that I'm telling the story. But also, I mean, I hope people will read it as a book about resilience and as a book about small towns, not just in Texas, but, you know, anywhere.

WERTHEIMER: Rene Steinke's new book is called "Friendswood." Thank you very much for talking to us about your book.

STEINKE: Thank you so much for having me.

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