AT THE CENTER Retired professor and social worker Van Soest once again tackles tough social justice issues through fiction in her second novel (Just Mercy, 2014).

Seven-year-old Native American Anthony Little Eagle dies just days after being placed in the home of Linda and Paul Mellon, a white couple with years of experience as foster parents. Renowned investigative reporter J.B. Harrell doubts that his death is an accident, as the police claim, and demands a meeting with Sylvia Jensen, a social work supervisor. Initially convinced that Anthony’s death was nothing more than a tragic mishap, Sylvia becomes suspicious when the health services department’s attorney blocks her access to the case file, and concerned when she learns that Anthony’s assigned social worker didn’t follow protocol. Putting her 30-year career at risk, she teams up with J.B. to uncover what really happened to the little boy. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s relatively newfound sobriety is in danger as she confronts hardened criminals, disturbing revelations, and her own demons. The novel also tells the 30-year-old story of Jamie, a young Native American who was forced to leave his white foster family and return to his biological one. Van Soest’s parallel tales help readers confront issues of ethnicity and culture in adoption and foster parenting, as well as better understand the overburdened social services industry, which can’t always provide individualized attention. As Sylvia and J.B. go from initial animosity to grudging camaraderie and finally friendship, their bond becomes much deeper and long-term than they expected. The author changes points of view and time periods to keep the story moving and build suspense, and her novel reflects upon its events without overt bias. Despite the weighty happenings, however, Van Soest still carves out a happy ending.

A provocative, thoughtful, and entertaining story about crucial social issues and believable, realistic situations.