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Review: ‘Fraccidental Death’ explores fracking controversy

By By Ed Davis
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

Donna Meredith’s new mystery thriller, “Fraccidental Death: An Eco-Thriller,” walks a fine line between two sides in the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, the practice of recovering natural gas by drilling vertically then horizontally, shooting a powerful blast of water and chemicals to shatter the shale.

Many in the oil and gas industry either believe harm can be minimized through human vigilance and advanced technology, but scientists and activists often maintain that the practice is inherently dangerous to the environment.

Meredith embeds her impressive research into an exciting mystery with characters readers will care deeply about.

It’s not necessary to have read the prequel, “Wet Work,” the first in the Water Warriors series, to fully appreciate “Fraccidental Death,” since the author feathers in essential backstory, including the continued themes of past trauma and romance.

Readers will learn plenty about the pros and cons of fracking while the plot builds to an explosive, satisfying climax. In a book integrating current research about such a hot-button topic, it’s a testimony to Meredith’s skill that she lets events and characters speak for themselves.

Meredith delivers a well-paced story with high stakes. We’re introduced to the protagonist, hydrogeology Ph.D. student Summer Cassidy, as she delivers a presentation in a compelling first chapter that strikes all the right notes.

Why did her thesis adviser nervously flee, leaving her to speak in his absence? Who’s the mysterious stranger asking questions designed to discredit her research linking fracking to increased seismic activity?

And if that isn’t enough to seize readers’ attention, we’re shifted seamlessly to Clarksburg, home of Fairhope Energy and the town where Summer will soon test water as part of her thesis research.

All hell breaks loose when Fairhope trucker Corky Rogers gets accidentally blasted by fracking chemicals and sent to the hospital by boss Boomer Walsh, who warns him not to report the spill and initiate any investigation.

The plot’s engine is now up and humming with Summer’s neutral scientific approach on a collision course with Boomer’s desperate measures to stay in business.

Meredith has no intention of vilifying the entire fracking industry. Her first requirement, as she explains in her acknowledgments, is to entertain, and she does it well in her balanced portrayal of small-town people such as real estate agent/councilwoman PJ Wine.

PJ is the perfect person to introduce our hero to Joe Glover, who allows fracking on his land while his brother Early wants the land preserved for his daughter and heir (and Corky’s fiancee) Sloane Dumont.

Summer sticks her foot right in the middle of things by asking residents for permission to test their water. Drama ensues when she encounters resistance, both real and virtual.

Meredith employs a technological subplot many will find fascinating. While Summer canvasses the county getting to know folks like Early, who greets those wanting mineral rights to his land with a rifle in their faces, and Patricia Kirby, whose water tastes funny even though there’s no fracking nearby, or Summer’s best friend Dayita Patel, who tracks down someone who is hacking the protagonist’s email.

While cyber-savvy readers will enjoy the description of Dayita’s computer expertise, others will enjoy Dayita’s devotion to Summer as well to as her own mother. Once battle lines are drawn, readers can sit back and enjoy trying to figure out who can and cannot be trusted.

But characters do not wear white and black hats in this novel, which is relentlessly fair to both sides in the fracking controversy. All characters have their motives and their weaknesses exposed, so it’s possible to have sympathy even for those with the worst flaws.

Summer is the book’s heart and soul. At 22, she is young enough to occasionally act immaturely, drinking more than she should and holding a grudge toward her prescription drug-addled, grief-stricken mother for too long.

But I admire a woman who chooses a ramshackle shack for her headquarters and sleeps on the cold floor, who teaches herself how to throw an ax accurately and who sticks to her scientific principles until her humanity prods her to act on behalf of others.

And Dayita provides a great foil: She’s got an easier life living at home with a loving mother, but she takes hacking to the edge of illegality, even though in service of a worthy cause.

In my favorite section, Dayita joins Summer in Clarksburg for Thanksgiving — without telling her friend she’s bringing Summer’s mother, too. The mother-daughter reconciliation also advances the main plot in an important way. All other characters have their roles to play, and even the most minor is memorable.

Plot twists and complications abound, including falsified documents, a crooked deal between local government and business, illegal surveillance, and a drunken armed confrontation where violence is threatened. Even the FBI gets involved.

In one well-wrought scene late in the novel, there’s a complicated mix-up involving two intruders during which Summer perseveres under great duress. Many events like this lead to perfectly timed revelations and surprises, one of which involves the book’s lone fatality. Meredith relies much more on characters’ intellect, opposing intentions and human failings than she does on violence.

As Meredith writes in her acknowledgments, readers may, despite her attempt at balance and fairness, still be offended by her treatment of the fracking industry. After all, by book’s end, we’ve seen the violent extreme to which some go to protect their interests.

However, we’ve also seen more responsible businessmen. Meredith forces us to ask hard questions like how and whether such an industry can be made truly safe for workers, water consumers and neighbors of fracking operations; and, if not, what we should do about it.

Implied in her dramatic collision of values is the possibility that we should all simply quit demanding cheap energy and alter our lifestyle of overconsumption accordingly. Meredith’s powerful examination of this crucial issue makes me hope that Water Warriors turns out to be at least a trilogy.

Meredith, a Clarksburg native currently residing in Tallahassee, Florida, has degrees from Fairmont State College, West Virginia University and Nova Southeastern University. Her articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines, and she often contributes book reviews to The Southern Literary Review. This is her fourth novel.

Ed Davis’s latest novel is “The Psalms of Israel Jones” from West Virginia University’s Vandalia Press. For more on him, visit www.davised.com.

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