Saturday, August 19, 2017

"American Fire", a tale of arson on the Eastern shore of Virginia

The subtitle of this book is "Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land".  It is written by Monica Hesse, a Washington Post feature writer who turned an initial story in the Post into this book.  It is about an area in the north of Virginia's Eastern Shore, one that is completely rural and far removed from the prosperity of its 19th century plantations and even its 20th century poultry processing factories.  It is also totally unlike its southern neighboring Eastern Shore county Northhampton which has retained some wealth from the past.

Accomack County is a place where people are casual and it seems that everyone knows everyone else.  This story is about Charlie and Tonya, a couple who would be obvious misfits in most places but were just part of this rural community of people who were mostly raised in the area.  Those who are not native were welcomed but years were required before they could be viewed as anything but outsiders.  Charlie and Tonya's quirk was that they enjoyed burning down buildings.  This is not a spoiler as the book is not a whodunit.  Rather it is more of a look at the how and why a half year spree of burning down over 80 empty buildings took place before they were caught.  The fire department stayed busy and regional media was attracted to the story.

At times the book edges toward trying to a modest version of "Hillbilly Elegy", but then backs off of anything political or topical beyond the impoverished area that is the setting.  At others it gets sidetracked into trying to create a fable like Bonnie and Clyde, but after four or five pages on that it gives up for obvious reasons.  Hesse spends time on generalizations about human behavior but there is little that is insightful about her commentary.  The core of the book is a simple tale about a rural community that has few aspirations but many simple satisfactions for the people that choose to live there.

This book was widely reviewed so it is assumed to be a publishing success.  It is really a hugely stretched out feature story filled with characters that are mostly forgettable once the book is put aside.  Yet it does resonate in its own way,  like driving down a remote two lane highway in rural Carolina or Virginia and seeing the old tobacco barns still standing and an RC cola sign tacked to an abandoned general store.  It is about an isolated world that exists on the fumes of the past while absorbing the drugs and bad television of the present.  In this story, a limited young man's infatuation destroys his life and it is unclear whether he cares.

"American Fire" is at its best when it sticks to a straightforward and observant tale of a rural area that for many would otherwise be unknowable.


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