“It’s a Small World After All”: An Inside Look on Small Town Connections
Everything connects--the world as we know it is interconnected in some way or another. Every move we make has the potential to alter someone else’s life. This is the concept Rene Steinke was aiming for in her novel Friendswood. While this novel is quite different than Dr. Seuss's, The Lorax, this environmental fiction story generates the same feeling for readers, of “we need to protect the earth.” Steinke begins her novel with a quote by William Goyen: “Something in the world links faces and leaves and rivers and woods and wind and makes them a string of medallions with all our faces on them, worn forever round our necks, kin.” Through the perspectives of four main characters, Lee, Hal, Dex, and Willa, Steinke unmasks the inner workings of Friendswood, Texas, and demonstrates how each one of these seemingly distant characters actually connects in more ways than expected, when the news of toxic land in town causes a frenzy throughout the residents. When the character plots finally intersect, it is clear to see that each person plays a specific role on one another, and that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Throughout Friendswood, Steinke frequently interweaves symbolism, especially concerning nature, that is definitely enticing and adds depth to the story line. The reasons Steinke relates so much of her characters to nature is because she writes about how nature is in distress, especially when it is taken for granted. Steinke frequently refers to nature in her book, and she continually relates them to the soul, family, or self. For instance, when Lee reminisces on the night her daughter was conceived, she describes in beautiful detail how she felt intertwined with her surroundings: “The open mouths of crushed figs pressed against her thighs, and she wanted to give herself over to the humidity and green. It was an odd lust, spreading into her fingertips, the fig trees in their rows; the moon; the dark, fecund air; the moist dirt; the ocean twenty miles away” (Steinke 84). And as a character resolution, Hal relates nature to how he is going to behave with his family: “Every day he’d tend to things, and he’d watch these seeds, these fruits, these branches grow” (Steinke 374). Steinke intricately displays how nature impacts these characters’ lives, and therefore gives insight onto why Lee is so passionate about saving her old homeland. As for Hal, who lived in denial about the toxic waste infecting Rosemont, he finally comes to his senses at the end of the novel, as he does with his family issues.
The characterization of Friendswood has equal good and bad aspects, however it creates inconsistency within the plot. As a general relationship, Steinke can be said to have related one main character, Willa, to Earth. After Willa is sexually assaulted, she feels the need to hide, and is scared to reveal what happened to her -- and the people who know just want to cover it up. This compares to the situation in Rosemont regarding the toxic land that so many residents are in denial about. Willa had to undergo her parents’ hiding her assault, thinking that the problem would just disappear. Lee, on the other hand, tries to uncover the secret of Rosemont, and wants the problem to be addressed so it can be resolved. While the symbolism ties the book together, the novel seems to lose some of its potential due to character disorganization, lack of character development, and dull individual character plots. One of the primary examples of confusion is in Part I of Friendswood, where Steinke introduces all these characters with seemingly no connection and does not disclose on their connection until much later in the plot. Because her chapters are organized by character perspectives, it takes awhile for readers to comprehend the connection between the characters. Although eventual character development is evident, it is hastened at the end of the novel. For example, Hal undergoes a significant change, but it does not occur until his last chapter of the novel. No events lead up to his character development -- Hal merely states that he finally wants to do some good in his family, and he wants forgiveness for all he has done, but he has said those same things numerous times in the book to no avail. When Steinke finally introduces his “change of heart,” it is quite anticlimactic. This anticlimatic pattern is demonstrated in all the characters in the novel, and this is also contributes to disorganization of the chapters. Finally, in each individual plot, the characters can seem quite dull. While obviously some plots are interesting, Steinke goes into an awkward rollar-coaster pattern of leading her characters to a climax, and, once it hits, writing a decline in action; the flaw here is in the rapid repetition of this pattern for each character. It is usually only when characters interact, especially between the main four characters, that the plot intensifies, and more is revealed about the story as a whole. The ending, especially in terms of resolution of character development, therefore, can also come off as disappointing.
Ecofeminism, the combination of environmentalist and feminist movements, is also addressed in the novel. Various female characters in the book, including Hal’s wife, Darlene, are portrayed as weak, vulnerable, and hidden. There are only a few characters that break this stigma: Lee and Dani. Internally, Lee has feelings of grief after the death of her daughter due to the contamination of Rosemont. She has nothing left to lose, and will therefore take to extreme measures in protesting the reconstruction on Rosemont land. However, she is still undermined. Everyone in town thinks she is the local “crazy lady,” and when the residents finally see reason about the truth of the toxicity in Rosemont, it is because a male character finally reported illness from the toxins on the land, leading to an investigation which ultimately stops the development of homes on the land. This is despite the fact that Lee has been providing evidence for months prior, and has been actively protesting the construction of new homes on the poisoned land. Willa’s best friend Dani, likewise, is a strong, feminist character. Dani is wildly independent and headstrong, and commits small acts of defiance, like smoking cigarettes, standing up for Willa, and continuing to visit Willa even when Willa’s parents refuse to let them see each other. Willa, in contrast, is a sexually assaulted teenager who is forced to mask the crime done unto her. Her own parents, humiliated that this has happened to their daughter, have encouraged her to stay quiet, saying no one else needs to know. Dani desperately tries to get Willa to speak out about what happened to her, but Willa is confined to her own thoughts because of her parents, and it is unbearable for her to be kept prisoner in her own body. Even minor female characters such as Darlene are portrayed in this powerless demeanor. Throughout Hal’s perspective chapters, he is seen ordering around Darlene, criticizing her, even admitting to cheating on her. Steinke therefore activates a greater understanding and appreciation for feminism, because she subtly includes patriarchy throughout the novel, which -- unless you were paying attention -- might have gone unnoticed.
All in all, this book is an interesting read, one that young adult readers particularly might take an interest in. Friendswood contains not only the elements of love, loss, environmentalism, and ecofeminism, but it discusses real life issues and how one event can alter the lives of many. At first the novel may come off as slow and disorganized, but at certain points it can be a real page-turner and has a creative story line. Even though her chapter organization and character introduction is confusing, Steinke just adds to her point that the chemical spill in Friendswood caused much more than resident protest, but it actually influenced people’s lives. Steinke reflects on various young adult issues, including the environment and self-appreciation, and cleverly relates these issues to the people involved in her story. You definitely need a keen eye to spot all the connections, but once you catch them, Steinke reiterates throughout the text that we live in a small world, and we are more connected to each other than meets the eye.