The subtitle of this book is Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, and what a fascinating story this is. It is set in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a 70-mile long peninsula with the Chesapeake Bay on one side and the ocean on the other. The area experienced great wealth from agriculture at the turn of the 20th century with the early building of railroads that gave farmers a means to distribute produce readily. This wealth vanished as trucks enabled farmers everywhere to compete in the lucrative northeastern city markets. Some of the land itself is vanishing: Earl Swift’s new book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Waterman of Vanishing Tangier Island, comes out August 7. I’m looking forward to that.
It is love and arson that dominate this non-fiction tale. The author tells the story of Charlie and Tonya in chapters that alternate with the story of the 67 fires that were set between November 2012 and April 2013. By the time he met Tonya, Charlie had served time for 30 felonies and had been on and sometimes off drugs multiple times. He once stole a cordless drill, an air compressor, a battery charger, and a propane torch. When asked about the theft, he explained the battery charger was for the cordless drill. Tanya was in her late 30s and worked hard on her appearance, in particular at tanning salons. They met at a local bar and fell in love.
The county has countless abandoned houses, left from the days when agriculture made residents rich. (The current employers, corporate chicken producers Perdue and Tyson, do not.) None of the fires resulted in death or injury of any person; in fact, chickens in a coop near a garage that was torched were freed to insure their safety. The story of the work of local volunteer fire departments, and the efforts by the sheriff and law enforcement and others elsewhere in the state to solve the mystery of who was setting the fires was endlessly entertaining. The rural nature of the county made it unlikely that anyone would observe the perpetrators.
While Charlie and Tonya were very happy for a time, declaring their love for each other on FaceBook, it turns out that the last 18 months of their relationship was marred by Charlie’s erectile dysfunction. One night while they were out driving around, she asked him to set an abandoned house on fire. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, so she did. She was so happy afterwards that he was willing to help her do this and after she set six or seven fires, he did the rest of them. Not sure what the dynamic there was. When they were eventually caught, he told the truth right away. At Tonya’s trial, Charlie’s demeanor made it clear that he couldn’t have been the mastermind, and at the last moment, she changed to an Alford plea.
This is an amazing story with enough historical background to give it context. The author makes the characters come through in all their oddness and humanity. And for me it was especially appealing to read about the area. When our kids were young, we stayed on the island of Chincoteague and swam at the National Seashore on Assateague. It always felt like a magical place.
Monica Hesse, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, Liveright, 2017, 255 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.