In my last post, I talked about one of the assigned essay collections for my creative nonfiction course: The World is on Fire by Joni Tevis. Although the book did not appeal to me at first, within the first pages, I was captivated by Tevis’ unique writing style:
Standing inside, I was at the center of something, and felt it. Behind me, the cleaning tunnel; in front, a dark mouth leading to the boiler. Something in me said Leave. It’s dangerous to treat with the past, and you can’t stay as long as you’d like. The place smelled deliciously of cool earth but there was no ash left in the pit, only brick powder, crushed-flat beer cans, and a dirty sign reading KEEP OUT. (112)
The World is on Fire is a collection of essays about the apocalypse, sectioned as a play with an Overture, three acts, and a Finale. This sectioning fits the subject matter, as the first act is about nuclear testing after World War II; the second act is about old, abandoned mills; and the third act delves more into Tevis’ personal feelings of loss. (The above quote is from Act II on abandoned mills.) Tevis further explores these topics by connecting them with artists like Liberace, Buddy Holly, and even John Wayne. It is impossible to condense the wide variety of topics into a few sentences, yet Tevis manages to connect them all in a powerful way. Tevis’ research and travel show her devotion to informing her readers accurately.
The Overture of The World is on Fire delves into the life of Sarah Winchester (from the family that created the Winchester rifles) and her mysterious house in San Jose, California. The fast plot pace and brilliant writing style made this section both interesting and exciting. Tevis’ style and vivid details put you in the story—it’s like traveling through time. You feel like you have been to each place she mentions—the Winchester house; Rock City, Tennessee; the Artic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; Patmos, Greece; Las Vegas, Nevada; and more.
I had the honor of hearing Joni Tevis speak, and she talked about her writing process. Tevis sometimes revises her essays forty or fifty times, and her book took seven years to assemble. While this may seem formidable, Tevis encouraged struggling writers that publishing does not always happen quickly. Tevis also said that she reads her essays aloud for revision, and this is evident in her writing.
The third act is especially poignant because it is about Tevis’ personal life and faith. The World is on Fire is not a Christian book, although Christians can learn from Tevis’ worldview that developed over time. While she never says so explicitly, Tevis often references her childhood faith. She was raised in a Christian family that focused on how your sin could send you to hell; she feared death and constantly doubted her faith, to the point that she rejected Christianity as an adult. Her ongoing struggle with Christianity is the underlying plot in her book. As writers and as Christians in general, it is important to portray our faith accurately and to show both the wrath of God and the love of God. We want to draw people to God, not push them away as Tevis’ family did to her.
While the book is a little hard to follow, I strongly recommend The World is on Fire to young adults and adults. (I say these groups exclusively because there are some graphic scenes in the first and last acts.) I would also recommend reading it through once thoroughly and then rereading some confusing sections, especially the title essay, “The World is on Fire.” I know that reading this essay again after reading the “Cave of the Apocalypse” essay really helped me understand the associations Tevis makes in her book. This book is formidable and depressing in that it addresses many difficult topics. But, it is even more relevant now because Act I on nuclear testing parallels the current pandemic:
Wasn’t this what I’d wanted to see? Evidence of a practice apocalypse, terrible but local: if you’re lucky, you can leave it behind. (72)
There is no better time for reading The World is on Fire than now!