It’s in the nature of small towns and isolated places to believe they’re special. Recently I drove through Ayden, North Carolina and found a historical marker revealing that President Washington had spent the night in 1791…10 miles east. It was something.
So when the Eastern Shore of Virginia showed up in the New York Times Book Review this summer, a lot of us ran out to get the book that put us there: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse.
It’s a gaudy title that stretches ambitiously. Those of us who lived through it knew that the spree of 60-something fires that were set during a period from November 2012 through April 2013 constituted a major local story. But Hesse believed that there was a larger story to be told. The arson attacks were not just our tale; they were an American one.
“America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be,” Hesse says in the preface. “But it also involved love.” And on those two grand themes, the book is built.
Of course, we locals will get hung up on the small things. We capitalize the Shore when we write about it; American Fire doesn’t. It’s Pungoteague, not Puncoteague. Northampton has one ‘h’ in the middle. There, I got it out of my system. Those little things won’t bother the general reader.
What those readers will see is a well-researched book with propulsive writing in the vein of Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Laura Hillenbrand (Unbroken). Hesse has a knack for structuring her story for maximum effect, doling out details selectively in a way that builds suspense and makes you want to know more. She doesn’t sink into speculation or make a case for sympathy, but keeps the reader at the level of the action.
Though there are elements that make this a true crime genre book, the question here is never ‘whodunit.’ Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick done it and we know that from almost the very beginning. What Hesse wants to explore is their relationship, what the fires did to the county, what they revealed about the particular national moment.
“Big-name crimes have a way of becoming big name not only because of the crimes themselves but because of the story they tell about the country at the moment,” Hesse reports. “And now here were the arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades, whether in the midwestern Rust Belt or the southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia.” (60-61)Hesse takes the long view of things. She spent time with Miles Barnes and the late Kirk Mariner, our local fonts of historical perspective. She accurately describes the effect of the arrival of the railroads here in the 1880s, the turn-of-the-century boom and the end-of-the-century bust that moved the counties of the Shore into the wealthiest of rural locales and then reduced them to among the poorest.
She is struck, as are the law officers who come from “across the Bay” to help out with the investigation, by the emptiness of the landscape and the remoteness of the buildings that are burned. Hesse describes the assumption of the police that someone would eventually see something that would help break the case. Ron Tunkel, one of the criminal profilers, eventually realizes,“There’s nobody out here at night…Suddenly, it seemed completely plausible to him that someone could light seventy or eighty fires without anyone else seeing.” (129)
Living here, the emptiness becomes less defining over time. We may live in a sparsely populated area, but we know the population and it becomes our community. But the struggles that Hesse describes – the poverty, substance abuse, economic decline, etc. – are easily seen, too.
The joy of Hesse’s book is that the characters are vividly portrayed. We not only get a rich portrait of Charlie and Tonya, but also the police officers, lawyers, and fire fighters who play big roles in the story. She clearly enjoyed getting to know them, especially the Tasley fire crew with whom she played pool and ate pizza, and she gives them life.
She puts great symbolic weight on the now-defunct establishment known as Shuckers – the Onancock bar where Charlie and Tonya met and dreamed of getting married. She chronicles its troubles, its demise, and the revival of the site as the Salty Dog and then The Fair Grounds. She calls it “a palimpsest of Eastern Shore history, on a slab of a parking lot with weeds sprouting through fractures in the concrete.” (230) Like a palimpsest, it is written over with new stories as the old stories remain beneath.
That’s her closing hope for places like Accomack County. “Maybe rural America isn’t dying so much as it’s Shucker-ing: adjusting, adapting, becoming something new, getting a new outdoor sign and adding jalapeño hush puppies to the menu. I’d like to think that.” (232)
I’ve got bigger hopes for the Shore than jalapeño hush puppies. I tend to think that rural America gets seen as the place that got left behind when America, the concept, moved on. But places like this may just be lying fallow until the next chapter of their lives will be written. And they may be places of innovation and renewal as they have been in the past.
Silicon Valley and the urban outposts of the Information Age economy are doing well and have no need to question the engine that powers them. Places like the Shore are doing deep soul-searching around the basic questions of who we are and what we ought to be. They are prone to slip into despair or burst into occasional flame, but they are also being pushed to the essence of what we are here for. And as in a burned-over field, new sprouts will emerge.
As for the book – it’s terrific. Go read it and check out my interview with Monica Hesse.