Friday, July 21, 2017

On arson (and love?) in rural, coastal Virginia

A student emailed me this NPR story a few days ago; it's actually a review of a new book, American Fire:  Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse, a Washington Post journalist.  The book tells the fuller version of a story Hesse reported for the Post in 2014, that of 86 fires that besieged Accomack County, Virginia, on the DelMarVa peninsula, over the course of just a few months in 2012-13.  Here's how Hesse describes her attraction to the story:
This story had everything. It had 86 fires ... over the course of five months; it had a community that was in a panic; it had the setting of a place that used to be the richest rural county in all of the United States and has now fallen into disrepair, which is the reason they had all of these abandoned buildings to begin with. And then it had a love story. And so you couldn't ask for a more epic human experience than everything that was wrapped up in this story for me.
Here's another absolutely priceless part of Michele Martin's interview with Hesse--priceless, I think, for what it captures about rural America--or at least some slices of it--right now (and, I suppose, for what it captures about human nature):
There was one person who I didn't quote in the book, who said to me, "Don't put this in your book, but I kind of miss the arsons because I really felt like my life meant something at that time; because I really felt like I knew what my community needed from me and I could do that in a really tangible way." And so one of the things that I hadn't expected to find was how, while the community was being burned down, the community was also knitting itself together in really close and unexpected and kind of lovely ways, too.
One of the most interesting aspects of my dig into this story and the book it spawned was the comments readers left on the initial Washington Post story, once they were drawn back to it by the book's publicity.  That is, these comments were left in July, 2017, not in 2014 when the story initially ran.  The point I want to make about the story (and presumably the book) is the defensive posture they put Eastern shore residents in.  Here is one comment:
Hesse is spinning a fantasy to promote her forthcoming book. The Eastern Shore is gorgeous - not the Dogpatch she depicts. She makes it sound like all the residents are uncouth white trash. In reality, the Eastern Shore is like most places, only more beautiful - the affluent residents have a wonderful lifestyle while the poor people, unemployed people, and living-on-the-dole people have it not so great. She has taken two miscreants who would generally be considered white trash and tried to romanticize them into something more compelling and glamorous. Hesse has attempted to make sense in a sensationalist way of an irrational act while idealizing a petty crook and his attention-seeking moll - but, hey, she is now marketing a basically uninteresting crime in the vehicle of a non-fiction best seller. Please leave that to Joseph Wambaugh who had a really compelling arsonist as well as writing talent. Sorry, but reading about this is about as interesting as shopping at Walmart and getting coffee at McDonalds.
Here's another:
I am stunned and frankly angered by the reckless hyperbole of this writer in describing the Eastern Shore of Virginia as a "vanishing land," "decimated" and "half gutted before the fires even began." That's complete nonsense. It's true we have many economic challenges, like most of rural America, but we chose to live here, run a business and never regretted it. I've never had such good friends and neighbors who look out for each other, and any day of the week and I can experience pristine nature, see myriad bird life, and get out kayaking on the water within minutes (no traffic!). We have the longest undeveloped seaside left on the East Coast, 70+ miles of it. We haven't wrecked our barrier islands like other places. We have the Chesapeake Bay on the other side, a booming aquaculture industry and some of the best sea kayaking on the East Coast. Come and stay longer, going kayaking or get out on a fishing boat and see what life is really about here. We work hard, play hard enjoying unspoiled Nature and are very proud of our Shore. I'm disappointed that the antics of two disturbed individuals of 5 years ago somehow makes this a sad and forlorn place in anyone's eyes. Believe me, we have moved on.
I'm not saying whose depiction of the Eastern Shore is accurate--just that it's interesting to see how the folks who've chosen to live in a place can be so sensitive about its depiction--and vigorous in their defense of it. I first noticed that when I started to write about my own hometown.  In some ways, bad-mouthing someone's home town is tantamount to bad-mouthing their mother.  The stuff can be pretty close to the heart.

As for the descriptions of Accomack County, they remind me of time I've spent in the northern neck of Virginia.  Read more here.

And back to the book for a moment:  I see it is on the NYTimes list of 10 books they recommend this  week.  

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