A big, moving novel of one tight-knit Texas community and the events that alter its residents’ lives forever.
Friendswood, Texas, is a small Gulf Coast town of church suppers, oil rigs on the horizon, hurricane weather, and high school football games. When tragedy rears its head with an industrial leak that kills and sickens residents, it pulls on the common thread that runs through the community, intensifying everything. From a confused fifteen-year-old girl beset by visions, to a high school football star tormented by his actions, to a mother galvanized by the death of her teen daughter, to a morally bankrupt father trying to survive his mistakes, René Steinke explores what happens when families are trapped in the ambiguity of history’s missteps—when the actions of a few change the lives and well-being of many.
Driving the narrative powerfully forward is the suspenseful question of the fates of four Friendswood families, and Steinke’s striking insight and empathy. Inspired in part by the town where she herself grew up, this layered, propulsive, psychologically complex story is poignant proof that extreme public events, as catastrophic as they might seem, must almost always pale in comparison to the intimate personal experiences and motivations of grief, love, lust, ambition, anxiety, and regret.
“Texas is a huge, complicated state, and it’s sometimes a difficult one for authors to get right. Not so for Rene Steinke, whose Friendswood does a near-perfect job capturing the feel not just of the titular city but of southeast Texas as a whole. . . . One of the most interesting novels to be set in the Lone Star State in quite a while.”—NPR, Great Reads of 2014
“Masterfully observed . . . The characters’ attempts to grapple with the legacy of this destruction form the tender and harrowing heart of the story. . . . This is a place you live in as you read.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“Friendswood, the lyrical new novel by National Book Award Finalist René Steinke, is the kind of 300-plus-page book that devours you in a couple of afternoons. The prose is nimble but sure-footed, the narrative suspenseful, and the characters universally recognizable—regardless of your familiarity with the small-town Texas paradigm of church, high school football, and a stream of background music from such Southern songwriting eminences as Porter Wagoner, George Jones, and Patsy Cline. . . . Friendswood is a rare blend of beautiful, suspenseful, and seemingly artless prose—you may stay up past bedtime to find out how everything turns out—but also of optimism: hope minus any form of proselytization. Like the country singers who are quietly woven throughout the narrative, shrugging off suffering through song, Friendswood offers an unassuming remedy for the troubles we humans always seem to find ourselves in: love thy neighbor. Simple right? Doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it. And it’s also one hell of a read.”—The Literary Review
“Years after an oil refinery’s toxic chemicals have caused death and illness among the residents of a fictional Texas hamlet, the affected families struggle to move on. Then a real estate tycoon lobbies to rebuild homes on the abandoned site, and the neighbors clash over money, justice, and the truth about this mysterious tract of land.”—Woman’s Day
“The topics in Rene Steinke’s new novel, Friendswood may be heavy . . . but you’ll relate easily to the characters. . . . Long after you finish the book, you’ll still wonder how the people in in are doing.”—Redbook
“The big events that rock this Texas community are nothing compared with what happens behind closed doors.”—Cosmopolitan
“A sharp, observant novel about the hard realities of challenging the status quo.”—Kirkus
“This is a book of rare power, tempered by equally rare grace. Steinke’s sense of this small Texas town, with its explosive and interconnected lives and deaths, is absolutely masterful. The reader is pulled into the story immediately, emotionally, morally, completely. What’s more, it’s a page-turner of the most explosive quality. Steinke torques the plot tighter and tighter, until the suspense is nearly unbearable—yet never loses sight of her character’s humanity, nor sacrifices a word of her beautiful prose. This is work by an author operating at the peak of her authority, to be sure.”—Elizabeth Gilbert
“A compassionate and compelling novel that explores the points of view of multiple people living in a run-over small town where everyone is as bound to the land around them as they are bound to each other, no matter how much they wish otherwise. The past is never quite past, and the mystery of how it all fits together is very seductive. Steinke gives us a rich and poignant story of human loneliness rendered through evocative, poetic and beautiful prose.”—Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia
“I loved this book for many reasons, not least its hardscrabble, plaintive tone and atmosphere of looming suspense. All of America is here. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.”—Wesley Stace, author of Wonderkid
“René Steinke’s Friendswood is as arresting, haunting, and heartbreaking as contemporary narrative comes. With lyrical and emotional depth, with an empathy only the greatest writers possess, Steinke shines a light into the shadows of the American spirit and doesn’t for a moment avert her gaze.”—David Grand, author of Louse and Mount Terminus
Praise for Holy Skirts
“Steinke has resurrected a genuine Personality, a stylish eccentric who might have been a staple of the tabloid gossip columns, had they existed a century ago.” —The New York Times
Praise for The Fires
“René Steinke is incapable of writing a bad sentence. Every line of The Fires shimmers with heat and danger. She rules her very willful characters with an iron hand. Gorgeous!” —Elizabeth Gilbert
I grew up in Friendswood, Texas, and in many ways, that place formed me— the shell roads, the backyard bonfire parties, Friday night football, country music radio, and the rough poetry scattered in my friends’ talk. Friendswood is more suburban now than it used to be, but it still feels like a small town to me. Although I left when I was seventeen, I know many of the teachers in the schools, either because they once were my classmates, or because they once were my own teachers, and some of my friends never left town.
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in New York City, but I still consider Texas my home, and, partly as a tribute to the people I knew there, I started writing Friendswood.
In a way, as a teenager, I was taking notes for this novel I’d write years later, though the Friendswood in my novel is a town drawn from memory and imagination, not reported fact. Back then, I loved reading J.D.Salinger, James Baldwin, Walker Percy, Emily Bronte, and Sylvia Plath. These were mostly my dad’s books—he was the lone, left-leaning Lutheran minister in town, a writer himself, and a big reader. I wrote a column for the local newspaper, and I wrote short stories and poems.
But that’s not the whole picture. I was also firmly ensconced in the brightly lit, orchestral event of Friday night football games, as a Wranglerettte, one of fifty girls dressed in fringe and cowboy hats who performed dances on the field at half-time. From the bleachers, I used to lose myself watching the players on the field, willing the ball to be caught, willing the quarterback’s legs to run faster. There was an undeniable beauty and majesty to those Friday night games.
As the minister’s daughter, I came to have a strong sense of the local power brokers. The Chief of Police attended our church, as did one of the city councilmen, and several local businessmen. But I also came to know people from all walks of life (including the man who kept goats and chickens inside his house). I was acutely aware of the ways in which people’s religious beliefs affected their lives, and I was also aware of darker undercurrents in the town. Like a lot of writers, I was an insider and an outsider at the same time.
Friendswood is built next to oil fields, where we used to ride our bikes as kids. But I didn’t realize the full impact of this proximity to industry until, long after I’d moved away, I came across the story of the neighborhood a mile outside of town that had to be completely razed because it was built too close to a defunct oil refinery, where chemicals had been dumped for decades. When I found out about this event and the tragic outcome, suddenly the story of Friendswood became more urgent, and I needed to write it.
In Friendswood, I wanted to capture the Texas I know, and I wanted to especially look at the strength and complexity of women, how religious ideas affect people’s inner lives, and all the particular ways a small town drives its residents to fail or succeed.
Friendswood asks hard questions: What does justice look like? To what lengths will people go to protect their sense of home? But it’s also a story about how people, even in the wake of catastrophe, retain their resiliency and hope.
Thanks for reading the book, and I hope you find the story and its characters engaging.