Surviving Strange Days: My Interview with Virginia Reeves begins – part 1 of 3

Virginia2

Virginia Reeves

One of my favorite books of this year has been Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by novelist Virginia Reeves.  My review can be found here.  The novel is a poignant tale of a man who is imprisoned for tapping into the new electrical lines crossing rural 1920s Alabama, an action that leads to an accidental death.  If you’ve read the book you will be interested in Reeve’s reflections on the book in the next two segments of this interview.  Even if you haven’t, I think you’ll enjoy her thoughts about America in these strange days…

One of the things that I have been fascinated with all my life, but particularly now, is just what rural life looks like and how it’s changing and trying to understand it more. Recently I’ve come to find that, especially in this strange political time we’re in when all the normal languages are breaking down, books like yours and literature and poetry are the most helpful things for me at the moment. 

Well I think that that’s wonderful. I love literature. I appreciate all of that and feel very similar—kind of reeling in the after-effects or aftershocks of the election and really feeling like you need to go back to the great works of literature that have sustained me through the years and find all of the good in our country and in the rural parts of our country and remember those pieces of literature at this very strange political time.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_When you look at rural life, what do you see as the big themes in the places that you’re writing about?

Yeah that’s a great question.  One of the criticisms that I have fielded about the book is that it’s revisionist history and that there would never be this white landowner, Marie’s father, who was so progressive in his thinking about race.  I was on a panel with a historian from, I think he was from, the University of Alabama.  We were on the same panel at this beautiful festival outside of Paris and somebody in the audience asked him, because he was an historian and I was a fiction writer, “Do you think Virginia’s book is revisionist?”

He said, “I think it’s plausible because it’s a book about people and no matter where and when you find people they’re capable of anything. They’re capable of greatness.  They’re capable of ugliness.  They’re capable of kindness and horror and injustice.”

I loved that answer and I have to believe that.  I believe that now, in the wake of this election, that it becomes really tempting to generalize and say our country is full of misguided people who elected this particular man to run our country but we are still individuals capable of everything that humanity is capable of.

I think especially rural areas get generalized. That’s very much said about Alabama. I like the idea that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.  You’re always going to find people who share your viewpoint or don’t.  You’re going to find people you completely disagree with or who have a completely different set of morals.  You’re going to find them in cities, you’re gonna find them in the country.  You’re going to find them everywhere.

So I think that would be an overarching idea of mine as far as hoping to push our generalizations a little bit and to get people to question those first impulses and our desires to categorize people as all one type.  We see that in Montana. Montana is such a rural state and we have less than a million people. I think we’re the third biggest state in the country and have less than a million people.  I visited so many tiny towns in Montana that are so rich and vibrant and full of beautiful people and surprising people. So, don’t judge but just sew another layer to our observations.

IMG_6592Your characters in the book, especially Roscoe [the main character], are so resilient and so many terrible things happen to them.  But the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the book is not that he’s been defeated by all this but that somehow he’s found a way to keep going.  He’s found the things around him to keep going and he’s able to see the things that will keep him going. I guess that’s my hope for the country but do you see that as well? I’m thinking of that essay where you say we’ll eventually rally around a new course, do you feel that way?

I have to hope so. I think I have moments where I feel pretty defeated and the news cycle is devastating for the most part. But I have to. On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity. I have to believe that we will rally and even when I disagree with the actions of our government, I look around me and I see so many people, individuals who are doing great things.

I think part of Roscoe’s ability to move on and survive everything he went through were these moments, these data points of kindness.  They feel so small, but it’s like the librarian [in the book] acknowledging his literacy and acknowledging that he has a mind that is an expansive mind and moments with the chaplain and moments with Taylor [the warden], the gift of the dog.  Those feel so minor in the moment possibly but I think if we can recognize those moments of kindness and generosity in others then that’s what buoys us and moves us through.

“On the very personal and regional level I just keep seeing this incredible work that people are doing and I have to believe in humanity.”

So I feel that in my novel helping my characters and on a personal note I see that around me.  After the election I was a little bit like, “OK, the world’s ending.”  I was a little dramatic when the election first came down and now I go, “OK, we take solace in the people around us and in what they give and their kindness and their generosity and compassion.”

Part 2

God and Arson: My interview with Monica Hesse concludes – part 3 of 3

Hesse, MonicaIn previous segments of this interview, I talked with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, about her experience of the Eastern Shore and her thoughts about what the 2012-2013 arsons have to say about rural America in general.  Today we conclude with some thoughts about the religious life of the Shore and her next project.

I was curious about your sense about religious life on the Shore and the role that churches might have played in the story.

I interviewed several ministers and a few of them appear in the book. It was moving to me to hear about, Jon Woodburn, who ministered to 3 churches in Accomack in a circuit and one of them was lit on fire and the flames were discovered on Ash Wednesday.  He was wonderful to talk to.  You discover these scorch marks and then it’s Ash Wednesday and then you have a service.  What do you talk about?

He said, “We talked about how it would’ve been so easy for the church to burn down but it didn’t and what comfort we could take from the fact that it didn’t and that we were still here and we were still together.”

I talked to ministers who would talk about finding in their hearts and their congregations finding it in their hearts to pray for the arsonist thinking anyone who is doing this must be very troubled.  So it seems to me at least that the people who were religious were able to take great comfort in an act that seemed so completely senseless. I’m not saying that faith gave the actions meaning but I’m saying that it seems like faith was giving people an opportunity to try to make sense of this chaos or to try to look at the chaos in ways beyond fear.

Then I also talked to folks who were from different strains, who maybe had more literal interpretations of the Bible, who thought that this was like a literal apocalypse, that these were literal signs that the world might be coming to an end or there might be some larger forces.  So it would make sense that faith leaders were able to bring levels of comfort and these levels of comfort were sorely needed in the community at the time.

18682748So what’s next for you? 

Actually, this is my first non-fiction book but I also write fiction.  This book came out the same day that I had a fiction deadline for another novel.  So I just turned in the manuscript for the novel.

I’d love to do another non-fiction book but the thing that makes non-fiction so difficult for me at least is that you really have to find exactly the right story because the story is all you have.  You can’t embellish or make anything up in it so my agent has been asking what I’m going to write about next and it’s hard because I know, whatever I choose, I’m going to have to live with for several years and I’m going to have to feel like it has that weight to carry me through.

Right. So is it more Young Adult fiction or is it adult fiction now?

No, it’s YA fiction but the book that I had written before this is historical fiction set in WWII and this is another in that genre. It’s another historical fiction set in the war.

The Richness & The Struggle: My interview with Monica Hesse continues – part 2 of 3

9558927
In part 1 of my interview with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, we talked about her experiences of the Eastern Shore, where the arsons explored in the book took place.  In this segment of the interview we looked at what the arsons might say about America more generally.

 

So, tell me about the larger picture.  You obviously saw this as an opportunity to write a book about a larger American story.  What is that story for you?

The broader story is the story of what has always been true about America which is that it is constantly reinventing itself into a different kind of place.  What I felt like we saw happen in Accomack with the railroad leaving or we’re seeing different kinds of farming, we’re seeing needs for different buildings, we’re seeing the rural population age, felt like we are constantly learning how to readjust and shift in a new modern world.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I felt like Accomack in 2012 was particularly in the middle of that. I would go to meetings where people would be talking about, “Are we going to let more chicken farms come in and if we do what does that mean and if we don’t what does that mean?”  Meetings where people would talk about the school system and changing demographics of the school system. To me it became an opportunity to look at what is it like both in terms of all of the richness and of the struggles to live in a place that represents historic America in many ways and then what it is like to be moving forward and figuring out what you’re actually trying to move forward to.

My own sense, after the election especially, was that places like the Eastern Shore were either becoming a stereotype to the rest of the country or were falling into owning that stereotype.  With Heartlands, I wanted to try to find the diversity of this place.

I was really lucky in that in that I finished this book before the election and I know that if I had started to write it after the election there would’ve been a temptation to try to make even more grand sweeping statements.  Everyone said, “Oh, what was it like to write about Trump’s America?” and I would think, “Well, I wasn’t writing about Trump’s America; I was writing about Accomack County.” I didn’t have to think of it in terms of broad stereotypes.  I felt like I could try to really treat it as the place that it was, which was a place that people have a lot of diverse opinions.  That was a relief and a blessing to me to not have to be thinking of the larger focus but of course I think in telling smaller stories we can learn about larger issues.

Right. I mean that’s the hope of every good non-fiction piece right?

Yeah, knock on wood.

IMG_6536In the book, there’s a really good section around page 62, where you’re talking about rural America and you say “the people of rural America had fed the nation and nurtured its soul.” It made me think that it used to be that other parts of the country might have looked at a place like the Eastern Shore and said, “Well, that represents the heartland, the place where we get our identity as a country.” Your quote made me think that that’s changed and that perhaps rural America is a stranger place to the rest of the world now.

Well, in a factual sense I think it is a stranger place just because such a small percentage of America now live in rural communities. I have the statistics in my book.  It used to be that the majority of Americans lived in rural places and now it’s a fairly small percentage. So in that sense it is foreign to the majority of America.

I think, moreover, it gets at what you were saying earlier about the divide between places like DC and places like the Eastern Shore, because we do two things with rural America: We either put it on a pedestal and we say, “This is how we should be living. We should all be traipsing around Walden Pond. I need to go become a farmer and that’s the most pure existence of America,” or we make these broad stereotypes about, I don’t know, flannel shirts and pitchforks.

When I went to college in a city and I got there and my roommate asked me if we had cable television (this was in the early 2000s so we had cable television) I thought the next question was gonna be, “Do you let your cows sleep in the living room?” So I think that we have two perspectives of rural America one is really idyllic and one is really derogatory and I think that neither of those is useful because what we do need to do is talk about the people who live there like the people anywhere else.  We need to be finding the humanity in every place we write about.

Exactly.  Yes.  That.

Part 3

Attention Must Be Paid: Writing Young People Into My Life

derick-anies-120213

Photo by Derick Anies via Unsplash

How do you write about the activities of people who don’t act in ways you can see?  I’m spending this month in West Texas writing a novel that has, as a main character, a 16-year-old boy.  Of all the characters in the book, this was supposed to be the easy one, since he’s loosely based on me at that age.  The challenge I presented myself is that the setting of the book is a small town circa 2017.  A lot has changed since I was 16.

One of the most obvious changes is that technology has radically changed the way that people, and especially young people, interact.  Some of the most important connections people have are now facilitated entirely by virtual means.  So how do you set a story in the physical world that includes those interactions?

kelly-sikkema-266805

photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

There are clever writers doing this, I’m sure.  But as I try to put myself into a contemporary teenager’s world I realize that the kind of connections I had that came from just roaming around my town may never happen or would not happen in the same way.  With my main character walking the streets, I have to figure out why he would meet anyone his own age on those streets.  Why would they leave the house?

Atlantic magazine has an article out entitled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  What’s that, you say?  ‘Isn’t the title a little histrionic?’  Well, yes, I’ll give you that.  But the statistics are sobering. “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”  Why?  The lure of the screens.  “Teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”  Why?  Well, there’s this:

“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less.”

The thing is, the story I’m hoping to tell may seem implausible because it’s taking place in, you know, the time/space continuum.  The only physical impact of an online life may be one that a teenager quoted in the article offers:

“I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people…My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

There are lessons here, for writers and churches.  One is, we can pay more attention to how the lived experience of young people is changing.  Sure, we could retreat to a ‘get off my lawn’ mentality and say, “They just need to put down the screens and smell the roses.”  (And by ‘smell the roses’ we mean, ‘be like we were.’)  But we’re all addicted to screens and we’re none of us being very thoughtful about how we use them.  I see an opportunity for shared conversation on how we live meaningfully in the digital and analog realms.

Secondly, we can invest our offline interactions with the attention they deserve.  The holy nature of a conversation, the sensual beauty of broken bread and shared cup, the visceral power of singing and live music.  As Linda Loman says in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

Also, there’s a public health warning for all of us.  The evidence suggests a real positive link between mental well-being and in-person interactions with others without screens.  It suggests we use our accountability partners to develop spiritual practices around use of technology.  (It also suggests we HAVE accountability partners!)

Here’s my tech tip related to this: turn off the notifications on your phone.  When that little circle on my mail app disappeared I was no longer thoughtlessly checking throughout the day to keep the number down to zero.

There’s more to learn, I’m sure, and I’m trusting this teenage character of mine to lead me deeper.   As well as real people…of course.

A Reporter Comes to the Shore: My interview with Monica Hesse – part 1 of 3

Hesse, MonicaMonica Hesse, an author and reporter for the Washington Post, came to the Shore to write a book about the spate of arsons that took place on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2013.  That resulted in the bestselling book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which I recently reviewed on Heartlands.

Monica agreed to an interview with me that ranged from conversations about the Shore to rural life in general.  The first of the segments begins right here:

I’m really enjoying the book. It’s reminding me of Lauren Hildebrand and Michael Lewis. You’ve got that propulsive writing style I really appreciate.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment obviously since both of them are immensely talented

I know you’re incredibly busy getting this off the ground but how do you find the reception so far to the book?

It’s been wonderful actually. It got really pretty good reviews which was obviously a relief because after you’ve spent so much time on something you don’t want to feel like it’s been wasted time and you want to feel like you’re doing your editor proud but moreover, the people who I’ve heard from the Shore who have read it have reached out to tell me that they think I got it right, which is much more meaningful to me because they’re the ones who I’m trying to write about and those are the lives I’m trying to capture.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I think that is credit to your ability to listen to what was going on here. So what attracted you to this story?

I had an editor once who told me a good story was about two things: It’s about whatever the story is about and it’s about the meaning of life. I felt like this was a story about a series of arsons and a rural county but it was about so much more than that.  It was about love and the crazy things that we’ll do for it.  It was about this moment in the country as a whole and how we were or what rural America meant to the country. It was about community and how horrible situations can bring out heroes and bring out the best in people. So I just felt like this story had so much to it that I wanted to write about and I wanted to try to capture.

I appreciated the way that you used this one very interesting relationship and the things that happened around it as a way to try to paint a bigger picture of what’s going on with rural America. That really came through. What made the Eastern Shore an interesting place to you or what struck you as interesting about this place?

I’m from a place that is not technically rural because it’s a university town but it is a town where you drive seven minutes in any direction and you’re standing in the middle of cornfields.  So to me the intimacy of living in a place where you talk to folks in the grocery store line and you let someone go ahead of you if they have fewer items and you might pull over to check on them if their car is broken down—that feels comfortable to me.  What was interesting to me was to spend time in a place like the Shore that I felt like I knew in some way but then had this maritime history and had this agricultural history.

I had never spent so much time in a place that was so old and had seen so many layers of history roll through it that it really did feel like a thumbnail of America. You have the rise of the railroad, you have the fall of the railroad, you have different styles of farming overlapping and I thought that all of that was just fascinating.  There aren’t many places that have seen so much history in the United States.

Yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Then I guess on a more personal level, when I moved down people would tell me, “Oh, everybody knows everybody around here,” and I thought that that was just an exaggeration. But then on the first day I interviewed the Commonwealth Attorney and I thought, “Well, thank you for your time.”  I thought, “Well, I won’t see this man again unless I need to interview him.”  Then I saw him like an hour later at the Rite Aid and I saw him two hours after that having dinner and it was like, “Oh, right, everybody really does know a lot of people around here.”

The fact these arsons were happening in a community that I was learning was so close-knit— I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the county burn around you and be wondering all the time if it was your neighbor that was doing it.

I was living in Northampton County at the time and I remember those times well and the anxiety.

I bet you guys were wondering,  “Are they gonna cross the county line? There’s only a matter of time before they’re gonna end up coming down here.”

Yes it was a lot of the wondering who it was, wondering why it was so hard to find the folks who did it, but there was also a little bit of,  “Well, something interesting is happening here.”  There was some excitement to it.

Yeah. I loved hearing about that from people, too. I would talk to folks who would say, “We want this to stop absolutely.  At the same time, man, that house at the end of my road I’ve always thought was an eyesore. I mean if they’re gonna burn something could they care of that house?”

Part 2

The Relentless Storytelling of Philipp Meyer: A Review of American Rust

 

jan-senderek-197825

Photo by Jan Senderek via Unsplash

Philipp Meyer is a relentless storyteller.  By the time he gets through with you, you will have a deep immersion in the place where the story happens and will have met characters who are anything but passive.  They are doers who fight and scrape against an unjust world.  They make many mistakes, some dreadful, but they are always in motion, like the country itself.

I first discovered Meyer through his second novel, The Son, which is an epic multi-generational tale of Texas.  It was all the things I like in a book – strong storyline, unexpected turns, complex characters, evocative descriptions of the landscape that help you feel like you are there, and…naturally…about Texas.  I fell for Pauline Jiles’ News of the World for the same reason.  Actually, what I’m saying is – you write a book about Texas and I’m gonna read it.

511is2qnAKLAmerican Rust is Meyer’s earlier work and it is set in western Pennsylvania where the late-twentieth century has turned the steel industry into a shadow of its former self.  The characters are all dealing with confusion and grief that they can’t quite name, but which has a lot to do with the decline they see all around them.

The story centers on two unlikely friends, Isaac and Poe, who set off to leave town and end up enmeshed in an act of violence that haunts the rest of the book.  Isaac is a brilliant, socially-awkward young man who has watched his sister go off to Yale, his mother commit suicide, and his handicapped father slip into resignation.  His answer to the stagnation he feels is to steal $4000 from the old man and try to run off to California.

Poe is a former high school football star who can’t find a living doing anything more than building landfills.   People see good in him, but he undercuts himself with a ferocious temper and impulsive behavior.

Meyer’s great gift as a writer is to bring a place and its people to life.  In this book he goes a little bit overboard with the details of the steel industry decline, giving the story a didactic feel.  He shows more than tells in The Son and that makes it a better book.  (Plus, did I mention that that book is about Texas?)  But he is a visceral writer with a strong sense of pacing.

Philipp_Meyer_A_plus

Philip Meyer

In addition, here he uses multiple points of view effectively, putting us into the heads of the six main characters, increasing the empathy and tragedy.  His stream-of-consciouness sections are among his best, bringing honesty and even humor to his characters.

Meyer has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.  That’s good company.  As Mark Athitakis noted in our discussion of Midwestern literature earlier this year, Meyer is doing what a good contemporary novelist should do – he’s complicating the landscape, honoring its natural and human beauty, and allowing human frailty its place.

What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

IMG_6587

In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

29Emmitt-2-blog427

The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

IMG_6588

As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.

Love and Arson on the Eastern Shore: A Review of American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_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)

9558927

Monica Hesse

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.

IMG_1899She 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.

Skylight Inn BBQ: The Long-awaited Heartlands Review

fullsizeoutput_17f4I’m not going to wax eloquent about a BBQ joint.  O, heck, who am I kidding?  I’m totally going to go overboard about a place with as much character as the Skylight Inn.

Should you find yourself in tiny Ayden, North Carolina, (and really, why would you find yourself there? – go!), you’ll discover an old downtown suggesting past glories.  The brick facade beauties of many a coastal plain town still stand, some repurposed as gun shops and hair salons.  You’ll even find Bum’s Restaurant, but I suggest heading out west of town where you’ll find a long building topped with what the rotunda on the US Capitol would have looked like if it had been made by your local tinsmith.

You’ll smell the place before you see it, though…and it smells good.  Stacks of wood line the back lot, feeding a perpetual fire to slow-cook whole hogs because, as the sign says, “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ!”

Despite the fancy name, the Skylight Inn is a no-frills operation and has been since it began in 1947.  Bring cash because their not going to take your confounded credit cards or checks.  Prices include tax and most are rounded to the dollar so that you won’t have to mess with change.

IMG_6534Just get in line, (there will be a line – even if you arrive at 1 o’clock on a Monday afternoon like I did), come up to the counter and make your order.  If you’re lucky you’ll get a tray.  If not, you’ll get a piece of butcher paper and you’ll be grateful.  Then, if you ordered right (you could have ordered chicken but…why?), they will load up a cardboard container with pork that has been chopped in front of your eyes, cover it with a slab of dense yellow cornbread, and serve it with a side of cole slaw.

We can quibble about the slaw.  I’ve had better.  But save your arguments about where you’ve had better BBQ.  They’re no good here.  We’re not talking Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, Alabama pork with white sauce, South Carolina mustardy, or Western Carolina tomato-ey.  This is the distilled essence of a long tradition served up with no fuss that sings with the soul of the east Carolina soil it grew up in.

IMG_6535Bits of crunchy cracklin are chopped in with with meat.  Vinegar-based sauce is there if you want it.  Drool if you have to.  Take some home if you’ve got a cooler for a long ride.

Ayden, North Carolina didn’t used to be on the route from Virginia to Texas.  But trust me…now it is!

Life at The Crossroads

IMG_6021The Crossroads Coffee House made my urban soul sing when it came to town this spring.  (Yes, I have an urban soul.  It shares space and fuels a lot of creative tension with my rural soul.  Welcome to my world.)  Matt and Brittney spent a year transforming an old bank building at the main intersection of Onley, Virginia into a space worthy of the finest college towns and urban renaissance sites in the country.  I’ve become a regular.

It’s got the bared brick walls and steaming cafe apparatus.  Natural light pours through the old windows.  Wooden stairs lead to an upstairs sitting area overlooking the floor below.  The bank vault has been transformed into a lending library.  Blown-up photos of Onley’s past dot the walls.  A horseshoe bar surrounds the service area, which is where you’ll find me.  At the far end against the wall, probably with a laptop in front of me.

Let’s not curse the place by calling it hipster.  ‘Hipster’ carries with it the baggage of the cultural moment.  This is not Brooklyn or Asheville in their grand bubbles of pretension.  Though, as I sit with my $3 Americano, I get the irony.  The cheaper brew at the Club Car Cafe is nearly as good.  But what makes Urban Soul sing is not the accoutrements of the settled Information Age economy.

It’s the space.

19875275_1420960941306852_4908987249234262571_n

The Crossroads – in the building closest to the intersection

The Crossroads has become just that—an intersection where new segments of the community meet.  Of course, the ‘come heres’ like me like it.  It reminds us of former lives in places where the search for wifi was not a part of your daily calculations.  (Seaside north of Wachapreague is pretty good.  Good luck on the bayside.  If you get stuck down to Hacks Neck you might as well put your phone away.)

Other folks have found their way to The Crossroads, too, though.  Watermen, tourists, construction workers, gadflies, and nurses.  And they will make of the place something altogether new.

It helps that the owners are decidedly local with a deep entrepreneurial heart.  They are idealistic, hard-working, and committed.  You can tell they’ve put their whole selves into this project.  And they care about historic buildings that connect us to our past.

I dream about what this could mean for our small towns.  My old haunt was a small coffee house down the road named The Yellow Duck.  We dreamed there, too, about how to build community on the rural Eastern Shore.  Elvin, the co-owner, said, “If we could just build ten Yellow Ducks up and down the Shore, we’d be a long way there.”

18195047_1357367347666212_6683297359738572051_nThere’s a lot of conversation in church circles these days about third spaces—places that are not private, like homes, or overtly ecclesial, like churches.  The third spaces don’t carry the weight of expectations that those other spaces do.  So, people are freer to bring their selves to the conversation and potentially more open about sharing their convictions with others.

I bring conversations and meetings to The Crossroads these days.  I know the odds are stacked against businesses like this.  There are dark voices on the Shore that haunt every new venture—“It’ll never work here.”

But I’m one of those rare folks who came to the Shore because of its opportunities.  And the main opportunity was to experience and build community in deeper ways than I had.  To go to a place where the church was still experienced as a vital part of that community.  To be shaped by a landscape that I still call the edge of the world and the verge of heaven.

We need spaces to share those dreams.  The Crossroads is one of them.