Burn Down This World
By Tina Egnoski
A book review
Celeste Leahy circa 1972 crashed a Florida Blue Key banquet with Betty Friedan, performed guerrilla theater on University Avenue with the Vietnam Veterans Against The War…and made Molotov cocktails with her friends.
Celeste circa 1998 lives in a house on the St. John’s River with her teenage son, works at dead end jobs…and positions goddess figurines at her window to ward off the wildfires that are sweeping through Florida in that meanest season.
These two iterations of the same woman, separated by 26 years, might never have reconciled one to another had not big brother Reid – nomadic poet and an almost mythical figure in family lore – suddenly reappeared in Celeste’s life to rake up long suppressed regrets and recriminations.
“Burn Down This World,” by Tina Egnoski, is an intimate examination of one woman’s unfulfilled life set against an backdrop of heat, smoke, riots and smoldering resentments.
Some of the heat still radiates from three days of rage at the University of Florida, when Celeste and other anti-war protestors clashed with police and national guardsmen. (“I had a rock in each hand when the first tear gas canister lobbed over our heads…The gas entered my throat and I couldn’t breathe.”)
Author Egnoski was not on campus during the riot years, having attended and graduated UF in the 1980s. Much of the history and background for her novel was accumulated while she worked as a UF librarian.
Longtime residents may appreciate the book for its glimpses of campus and Gainesville life circa 1972, when students combed Micanopy cow pastures for mushrooms and got high at the Halloween ball. This when they weren’t cursing Richard Nixon or occupying then-President Stephen C. O’Connell’s office. (“When O’Connell finally opened his office door, he looked haggard.”)
In her campus days, Celeste recalls “the place to drink was Rathskeller. The beer there was cheap and cold.” Then there was the time “We went to see Mudcrutch” and “instantly developed crushes on Mike Campbell and Tom Petty.”
But “Burn Down This World,” is less an anti-war morality tale than a human-scale drama about how an impetuous act of sibling betrayal derailed a young life seemingly full of possibilities – consigning an adoring younger sister to a pale imitation of the existence she had envisioned for herself.
Instead of leaving UF with a degree and opportunities, Celeste would return home beaten and bruised, having been arrested and expelled. Meanwhile her brother hit to road, eventually to gain celebrity as the “voice of his generation.”
“I didn’t want to know how my mother felt” Celeste muses upon returning in disgrace. “I couldn’t take one teaspoon of her pain onto the gallons of pain I carried.”
When her absent brother finally does reappear, it is during that long hot, terrible summer when conflagrations forced the evacuation of entire counties. Celeste’s mother is in the early stages of dementia, her son is withdrawn and resentful…and suddenly Reid is once again the center of everyone’s universe.
“I said a silent and stupid prayer to the goddesses. Were they powerful enough to bring an end to both the fires and my anger at Reid?”
Egnoski tells this story of campus riots, raging fires and one woman’s inner turmoil in sparse prose and straightforward fashion. It is a quick read and all the more satisfying for it.
(“Burn Down This World” is published by Adelaide Books and sells for $22.30 paperback and $7.99 e-book edition.)
About the author
In “Burn Down This World” protagonist Celeste arrives at the University of Florida in the fall of 1971, having “missed the candlelight march to President Stephen O’Connell’s house after the Kent State shootings” as well as “Jane Fonda at Graham Pond.”
As it happens, Tina Egnoski, author of “Burn This World Down,” missed all of that as well. She graduated from UF more than a decade later, in 1983. But while working at the UF library, Egnoski came across a photograph of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda holding her anti-war rally at UF. And she began to conceive a story line that would ultimately connect the campus riots of 1972 to the Florida wildfires of 1989.
“I didn’t live here at the time of the fires,” she recalls. “My mother did, and she ended up having to evacuate. I wanted to have these two kind of threatening stories (campus unrest and fires) happening parallel to each other…this sense of danger building.”
Like her troubled protagonist, Egnoski grew up in the Melbourne area. Like Celeste she was also a military brat, the daughter of an Air Force careerist. But there the similarities pretty much end. Egnoski grew up with sisters and had no great sibling rivalry in her life.
“When I was working in the archives I helped history professor Sam Proctor go through a lot of old photos. That was when I was first introduced to the history of the university.
“I was attracted to the ‘70s because that’s when I came of age. And when I saw the picture of Jane Fonda, I thought ‘that’s so cool,’ and the idea (for the book) began to surface in my mind.”
Egnoski lives in Rhode Island, but she briefly returned to Gainesville in 2014 to finish researching her novel. In “Burn This World Down,” she said “I was trying to tell two coming of age stories” a quarter of a century apart.
“At 18 Celeste gets thrown out of UF and sent back into a life she was trying to get away from,” Egnoski said. “She doesn’t really grow emotionally the way she would if she had stayed away. The second coming of age is years later, when she finally has to let go of her past.
“I remembered the Jane Fonda” appearance and the events that followed. “That whole conflict was so rife with history that I wanted to relate it to a personal history. I wanted to have this sibling relationship and I wanted this event that pulled them apart for 25 years.
“It was too good to pass up. Just three days changed everything” in Celeste’s life.