Fracking & A Fractured Land

The Washington County Fair in 2010 should have been unalloyed joy for Stacey Haney and her family.  After all, Haney’s 14-year-old son, Harley, and his goat, Boots, took the Grand Champion Showmanship award.  Paige, her 11-year-old daughter, got awards for her two rabbits, Pepsi & Phantom, and for her Mexi-SPAM Mac and Cheese entry in the cooking contest.  They had a load of ribbons to take back to their small farm in Amity, Pennsylvania.

But things were not O.K.

Harley was sick–some kind of strange stomach ailment that left him listless and unable to get to school.  Stacey had an odd rash.  And the neighbor’s goat, Cummins, had died, his insides crystallized, “as if he’d drunk antifreeze.” (12)  Perhaps, they began to think, it had something to do with the fracking wells and waste pond just up the hill.

Hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking, transformed America’s energy market in the last decade.  By breaking apart shale deep in the earth using millions of gallons of pressurized water and chemicals, the fracking boom released abundant natural gas.  The gas burned cleaner than coal and it was underneath American soil, enabling even environmental advocates to imagine that it might be a bridge fuel to a future when renewables could shoulder most of the load.

In places like Appalachia, where the Haneys live, the new industry brought new life, new money, and new visibility to a region dragged over by previous energy booms.  Landowners, including Haney, got paid for the mineral rights to their land.  Extraction companies like Range Resources touted the millions they contributed to local communities through impact fees and road improvements.  One township supervisor “called them a ‘godsend.’” (280)

But there were other impacts and the Haneys were feeling them.  Over the course of eight years, as Eliza Griswold tracks this family in her powerful new book, they lose their health, their animals, their house, and their trust in just about everyone except a pair of crusading lawyers who tilt at the windmills of industry and the government agencies that should be protecting them.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America is the kind of propulsive read that marks our great story-telling journalist/writers today.  Griswold uses her extensive visits to the region and understanding of this one family to tell a story that is much larger.  She is telling us about small things like county fairs, hard-working single mothers, the ties that bind together neighbors, and the persistent pleasures of small town life.  But she’s also telling us about God, politics, government, industry, and the perils of living in a resource-rich, desperately poor region.

It’s about America, and given the state of things at the moment, that makes it a tumultuous read.  Griswold’s writing has all the flair and clarity of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but unlike that uplifting story of a World War II hero displaying courage and endurance in the face of unimaginable hardship in defense of America, Amity and Prosperity takes us into the places where that endurance is not always recognized and the victories not so clear.  In the eight years since Hillenbrand’s book was published, we’ve moved from Unbroken to Fractured.

Griswold may seem like an unlikely chronicler of this tale.  The veteran journalist has spent years in far-flung places around the globe.  Her last book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, went deep into the heart of Africa and Asia tracing the front line of religious and ideological conflict.  What brought her back was her realization that 

“so many of the problems of collective poverty plaguing Africa and Asia were becoming more evident in America.  I decided it was time to come home, to turn my attention to how we tell stories about systemic failings here in the United States.” (307)

Not that she came back to write a strident, partisan critique.  Amity & Prosperity is far from that kind of book.  Its characters, including Stacey Haney, are complex people who don’t fall easily into stereotypes.  There are plenty of Trump voters, but there are skeptics, too.  What they share, from the days when coal was king, is

“a sense of marginalization and disgust, both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.  Today, the fracking boom has reinforced those convictions.” (6)

Religious viewpoints here verge on the fatalistic.  One older woman says that the poisoned waters from fracking are a Revelation-foretold sign of the end times.  “God permitted this to happen because the U.S. has gotten so far from him,” she tells Griswold.  “I just hope we’re raptured out of here.” (268-9)

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Eliza Griswold

Stacey sees it in more personal terms.  The utilitarian arguments from the Obama Administration become for her a kind of cruel sentence.  The greatest good for the greatest number of people meant that “it was Stacey against the Bangladeshi woman who was losing her farm to a rising sea.  It was Stacey against factory workers eager for a manufacturing revival.  It was Stacey against most of the world, and Stacey was losing.” (223)

The rural landscape Griswold reveals bears resemblance to my own Eastern Shore of Virginia as Monica Hesse described it in last year’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Written in a similar style, Hesse’s book also uses a narrow story, (in her case, a string of arsons), to uncover a larger picture.  What it’s about is personal but it’s also about “America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.”

These reports from the field by remarkable journalists are not encouraging.  Griswold depicts a creaky, hapless, corrupt federal apparatus that is less and less able to confront powerful interests and to address the concerns of rural residents who do not trust the government.  Those who do try to make a stand, like Stacey and the valiant lawyers Griswold describes as Mr. & Mrs. Atticus Finch, must be committed to years of painstaking work with little pay and no guarantee of success.

It’s a credit to Griswold’s talents that she keeps the suspense about the outcome going until the very end.  It’s up to the reader to discern if the best outcome the book describes is the haul of ribbons at the county fair in 2010, which seems so long ago.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Look for my interview with Eliza Griswold, coming soon.

Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #8 American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, it had local appeal for those of us on the Eastern Shore, but Monica Hesse’s exploration of the 2012-13 arson spree here that damaged 60+ structures was masterful writing.  In American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, the Washington Post reporter used the window of the crime to explore what was happening on a larger scale throughout rural America.  And she did it without turning the people she spent time with into caricatures.  The investigators, fire fighters, and arsonists all feel like three-dimensional people.

Good, timely writing about what’s happening in the American countryside made this is a shoo-in for the Heartlands Top 10 Best Reads of 2017 and I give American Fire the #8 slot.  My interview with Monica Hesse was also fun.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

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

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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

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

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)

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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.