BOOK REVIEW: ‘American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land’

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What does it take to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? A silkworm and a needle. What does it take

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AMERICAN FIRE: LOVE, ARSON, AND LIFE IN A VANISHING LAND

By Monica Hesse

Liveright/Norton, $26.95, 255 pages

What does it take to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? A silkworm and a needle. What does it take to make a mad-crime story into an elegiac page-turner? A writer with a police reporter’s calloused grasp of gritty facts, a farmer’s dogged patience and a silken touch at the keyboard.

Monica Hesse calls the Eastern Shore of Virginia “a hinky peninsula separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay and a few hundred years of cultural isolation.” She went there to cover an arsonist’s arraignment for a big city newspaper in 2013, then spent years learning the larger story and writing “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land.”

Let’s deal with the serial arson first, and the guilty couple who also commit the love mentioned in the title. He was Charlie Smith, misfit, volunteer fireman, auto-body guy, thief and druggie who went straight when he fell in love. She was Tonya Bundick, “by day … a hardworking nurse and terrific mother,” by night a star at the saloon where the entertainment alternated between the ladies’ hootchicootching on a stage and the gents’ bare-knuckle brawling at the bar.

Charlie and Tonya lit up the shore by torching 67 vacant buildings in five months. Most of these abandoned houses had seen “generations of the same family living and dying and moving in and out, until finally somebody moved out and nobody moved in.” Finally caught red-handed, Charlie pleaded guilty and is serving 15 years, while Tonya didn’t plead and is serving 17. They were both guilty as hell though their motives were not as satanic but bizarrely beatific.

Those motives and the author’s gentle illumination of them are too nuanced to recap here. Besides, the supporting players in this cast-of-dozens are equally interesting: a savvy fire chief and workhorse volunteer firemen; psychological profilers brought in from the big cities who plied their dark arts in the back country and nearly threw in the sponge. (This book reveals more about forensic interviewing than a police procedural.)

Yet the star is the Eastern Shore itself, Virginia’s two counties east of Chesapeake Bay, a region populated mostly by Anglo-Americans of one stripe or another for 400 years. Almost Eden, the shore supported agrarian living for generations before the railroad arrived in 1884. This transformed the shore, providing farmers access to distant markets as shore food reached groceries as far off as Kansas City and Toronto. In one 20-year period the $750,000 potato crop grew 25-fold to $19,269,890.

It is hard to imagine that in 1910 Virginia’s Accomack and Northampton Counties were the wealthiest rural counties in America. The only other time Accomack reached as high a national ranking might have been in 2012 when its cellphone users, terrified by the arsons, tapped into police/fire radio scanners at rates only exceeded by Los Angeles and New York. In the century between those benchmark years, the bottom fell out of small-farm agriculture throughout America. Here, partial recovery came only with the mixed blessing of the industrial chicken, now the biggest cheese in Delmarva.

Miss Hesse is nearly note-perfect when describing the special nature of farming America, a domain that shares much with rust belt ghettos and the mountain realms of “Hillbilly Elegy.” Here she recognizes the appeal of “a seventy-mile-long small town where everybody knows everybody” — so that the arson rampage was the more devastating as neighbor came to suspect neighbor. (However, her facts can slide, as when she says the shore was settled in 1603 [before Jamestown?], and her prose stumbles into lazy vulgarity when she writes apropos of Charlie and Tonya’s bond, “at some level the person you are closest to will always be a total friggin’ mystery.”)

In Accomack, she celebrates the volunteer firehouse as the community’s hub and heart, and eulogizes its slow demise late in the last century. Where son had followed father into the local firehouse, certification requirements mushroomed. The old outfit of fire coat, boots and helmet acquired breathing gear that cost $5,000, and fundraising became the volunteers’ principal activity. Besides, in the new economy where people needed two jobs — if they could find them — they no longer had time for volunteering. And with cellphones and Facebook to connect, who needed the firehouse?

Her elegy to the shore: “The people who live in Accomack were happy to live in Accomack. It wasn’t small, it was close-knit. It wasn’t backward, it was simple

“In the end the grandest statement I can make about Accomack is this: There were buildings that burned down. Some of the buildings meant something to people, and their burning was a tragedy. Some of the buildings were ugly and old. Nobody knew who they even belonged to and why they were still there. Those buildings weren’t missed. A normal person wouldn’t have burned them down, but the fact that Charlie and Tonya did — well, that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, either. And the people who really made the county, the firefighters and teachers and librarians and police officers, they were all still there. That mattered.”

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Chevy Chase, Maryland, writes about history and culture in America.

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