Thursday, October 31, 2019

Help Needed

I took time out of my preparation for National Novel Writing Month to answer a request from Todd DeDecker. DeDecker, the Bishop Hill Heritage Association's administrator, asked for help not for himself or the BHHA, but for the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. He provided a form letter so BHHA members can plead the case for the state site getting more financial aid from the Illinois Dept. of Natural Services. I wrote my own letter: 

Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Colleen Callahan, Director
One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, Illinois 62702-1271

Dear Director Callahan,

I am a fan of the Bishop Hill State Historic Site. I lived next door to the Bishop Hill Museum for over twenty years. My kids grew up volunteering for the annual harvest festival and waiting their turns for the fourth-grade Live-in experience. When the king and queen of Sweden came to visit Bishop Hill, we walked through the back yard to meet them, much to the surprise of the secret service agents. That’s why when it came time to write my first book, I relied on my Bishop Hill memories and experiences.

My book, Clouds Over Bishop Hill, may be fiction but the major themes of preservation, the artwork of Olof Krans, and the character of Bishop Hill are not. I take them very seriously, especially that of preservation. Colony buildings shouldn’t be going without the repairs and maintenance they need to maintain structural stability. Such as the time when there was a hole in the Colony Church’s roof so big that daylight, as well as rain, poured in. People, visitors, stopped me on Bishop Hill’s main street to complain. That was very shocking. I hope the present situation isn’t as dire as that.

The Colony-era buildings of Bishop Hill and its immigrant history are cultural gems for state, national, and international pride. Therefore, I’m asking the DNR to do all that it can to preserve this legacy. Increasing funding for the Bishop Hill State Historic Site is a vital first step for preserving it for present and future generations.

Thank you for your time,
Mary Davidsaver

Todd DeDecker

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

American Fire Review & Personal Resource List

American Fire, a nonfiction work by Monica Hesse is the perfect reading material for a writer who wants to put a little arson into her novel. Who thought lighting a fire under some old house would be interesting and intriguing for her readers. Especially if said old house was filled with historical records and artifacts. How, in this case, the arson could graphically highlight a favorite theme of preservation in a way that no one could miss. All the better that small rural towns and volunteer fire departments were key points of Hesse’s book. Yes, that writer would be me. Thank you, Monica Hesse, for being a valuable resource for my fiction.

As I said, my work is fiction. Hesse’s is not. The string of arson cases in American Fire started in late 2012 and went on for five and a half months. Long and costly months for the volunteer firefighters of the eastern shore of Virginia. Hesse described all the relevant details of the crimes, the punishments, and the emotional toll the crime spree took on all involved.

These are some of the pertinent facts that I’m taking with me after reading this book:

*The decline of population and opportunity for an area once known for potatoes left an abundance of empty buildings and potential targets.

*How a small fire department took up a collection to buy a “chemical engine.”

*That they parked that new engine in bays “designed for hand-drawn fire engines, not mechanized ones.”

*Volunteer firefighting tradition was handed down through generations as fathers taught sons the basics. Way before structured classes and new methods came along.

*Actually, the basic method stayed pretty much the same: surround and drown.

*The signal that a fire was under control was the same, too. The black smoke of an active fire being replaced by the white “smoke” of water evaporating into steam.

*An arson investigator looks for the V—the smoke pattern that could trace the point of origin. Also, the soot line, which would tell how the fire burned, how long and how slow.

*Those clues aren’t available if the house is reduced to ashes.

*Being part of a volunteer fire company provided camaraderie as well as a vital sense of importance.

*“Arson is a weird crime. It doesn’t make one richer, unless there’s insurance; doesn’t give one nice things; doesn’t get rid of an enemy (in a basic sense); doesn’t make one famous (less than a 20 % arrest rate) … the visible remnants of an arson are not what it has left behind but what it has taken away.”

*“Firesetting is a behavior. Arson is a crime. Pyromania is a psychiatric diagnosis.”

*“To journalists and professional storytellers, crimes are always more interesting when they happen in folksy, safe communities than when they happen in big cities.”

*The loss of population and the change of employment opportunities cut down on people able to volunteer for firefighting.

*This particular arsonist wasn’t considered very good at setting fires. Not all eighty-three fires resulted in complete destruction.

*“The key was to create a public message (about the fire) in a way that would jog people’s memories without disclosing any proprietary information or leading all potential witnesses.”

*Anyone could become a person of interest.

*“Under a loose siding panel, someone had stuffed a lit rag and it was still smoldering.”

*“The flames hadn’t fully involved the house … the departments … on their way thought they could handle it.”

*Folie à deux is a French term which literally means “madness of two.”

*Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi forged $45 million dollars’ worth of art and were captured in 2011. [Fact for my first BH book.]

*Charlie Smith confessed to using rags to start fires. No accelerant was used. A point in his favor when the judge was considering his sentence.

Fun fact: I was able to find a photo of Bishop Hill’s first mechanized fire truck, and probably like the one Hesse wrote about. It’s a vintage chemical engine that had been saved by a farmer and stored in one of his buildings until his estate sale. It’s been restored, and the Bishop Hill volunteer fire department brings it out for parades. In this photo, it’s being driven by Jack Hawkins, a former fire chief.