By Monica Hesse. (Liveright, 304 pages, $26.95.)
“American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land,” is a page-turner of a true-crime book, even though we know pretty early on (by page 11) who did it. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse explores the story behind a string of arsons that lit up a rural Virginia county over the winter of 2012-13 — more than 80 fires in five months left the volunteer fire department depleted and exhausted, though they never stopped working, sometimes going out two and three times a night. Their exhaustion is made palpable in the compelling opening chapter, which takes us nearly minute by minute into the fight against the first blaze.
The arsons occurred in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, “a hangnail, a hinky peninsula,” Hesse calls it, a place that once boomed with wealthy farmers but has since gone bust. The buildings that were set ablaze by likable but troubled local resident Charlie Smith were mainly abandoned and empty. Charlie didn’t set them out of some weird fascination for fires but — even weirder — out of his intense need to please the woman he loved. In Hesse’s capable hands, Charlie’s story becomes a metaphor for the desperation and sadness of a rural county on the decline. “The county went about its business,” she writes. “The county burned down.”
The Salvager: The Life of Captain Tom Reid on the Great Lakes
By Mary Frances Doner. (University of Minnesota Press, 312 pages, $21.95.)
Before radar, before GPS, great ships rode the Great Lakes laden with coal, grain, sewing machines — the stuff of commerce and the American economy — relying on charts and experience. The lucky ones made it. Others struck rocks, reefs and sometimes each other, foundering in weather that was often hellacious, where the water was always cold. For decades, up until 1949, Tom Reid was the man to call, a salvager with a keen eye for bidding a job and a brilliant tactician in raising ships with air pressure. He also was a husband and father rarely at home. In this book, first published in 1958, Doner provides a highly detailed account of Reid’s life, recounting how various ships were raised, how insurance companies dickered, how his wife, Anna, ached over his absences. Reid’s history is lake history; he salvaged the Mataafa after it horrifically drifted off from Duluth’s canal in 1905 in a storm. Avid sailors may note references to this or that passage, and imagine themselves at a lake’s mercy. Such personal experience helps, for by its exhaustive nature, the book can be rather dry — another coffer dam built, another tow line snapped. Yet Doner manages through a laser focus on Reid’s demeanor to produce a compelling portrait of a man and how his often herculean work remains a vivid part of Great Lakes lore.