American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
Imagine a five-month long crime spree in which no one is killed or even seriously injured. This happened recently on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, in rural Accomack County, once wealthy and now full of abandoned buildings, dozens of which have been set on fire. Meet the firefighters, mostly volunteer, stretched to their limit, and the law enforcement officials trying to figure out where the arsonist will strike next. Likeable mechanic Charlie and his girlfriend Tonya, an attractive night clubber with two children, are clearly involved, but the author, an award-winning reporter, frequently surprises the reader as the story unfolds, from the first fires to the final court case. This is a story of small-town America and how it’s changed over the last century, along with an unlikely love story and a page-turning crime drama.
Margot discovered that her home town of Hampton, Virginia, was also home to many African American women mathematicians who worked for NACA, later NASA, in the 1940s and beyond. The college educated women, many of them teachers, were recruited as human computers during World War II, running calculations for aerospace engineers. These jobs paid much better than teaching, and many of the women stayed on as they began to raise children, and as NACA transitioned to NASA. Virginia was defiantly a southern state, resisting integrating schools in the 1950s and 1960s, and the women worked in the all black West Computers section at first, with a white section head. The cafeteria tables and bathrooms were also segregated, but the pioneering women proved their importance, getting reassigned to other sections, sometimes getting promoted to mathematician and rarely to engineer. In the 1940s and 1950s, the goal was to produce new faster and safer airplanes, and later they worked on projects developing rockets, calculating spacecraft trajectories, and programming early computers. Several of these pioneering women are highlighted, and the stories of their careers and personal lives are fascinating and surprising. I haven’t yet seen the popular movie based on the book, but I look forward to it, and to learning more about the human side of NACA and NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The author’s thorough researching of the people, place, and time make for a compelling and memorable read.