American Fire by Monica Hesse Book Review
The lowdown from Goodreads
Publish Date: July 11, 2017
The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.
The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie’s confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn’t lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other’s inspiration and escape…until they weren’t.
Though it’s hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it’s been drained of its industry—agriculture—as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.
American Fire by Monica Hesse Book Review
I first read about American Fire by Monica Hesse on Entertainment Weekly’s ’20 Books to Read This Summer’ List. A true crime story involving a couple in love committing arson along a coastal Virginia town? I am hooked from the get-go.
What I immediately loved about American Fire is that we already know how it ends. Despite knowing the culprits and the victims, there is so much more to the story.
Dancing & Falling In Love
First, let’s start with Charlie & Tonya. How could a love connection made through a bar named Shuckers not succeed? Their sordid but somewhat touching love affair is highlighted throughout the book. I love reading the details of their shared Facebook page. Yes, I know, gag me. Surprisingly, I felt able to connect to each of them reading their status updates. The account gives us Tonya-isms featuring her “rhymes or homespun aphorisms”. These include musings about trips to Wal-Mart & McDonalds, naturally. Just like Rihanna sings, Charlie & Tonya ‘Found Love’ in a hopeless place. So what went wrong?
The Vanishing Land
Accomack County is the central character in this book. Monica introduces us to the sheriff, the residents, and the town’s history. As the fires pick up, the town’s resources are pressed to the limit. This creates more fear & tension & the air is thick with deceit. Accomack County knows one of their own is to blame. The question again is, why?
Hesse paints a portrait similar to what J. D. Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Sadly in this rural area, industries are leaving, jobs are gone, yet people remain. We meet the “Born Heres” & the “Come Heres” of Virginia’s Eastern shoreline. Quickly, readers are invested in the Volunteer Fire Department that is continuously working during the fires. Hesse pulls no punches about the town’s dwindling future, but there’s an indelible spark of community & pride caused by the arson.
I was Really Into This book. I love the show 48 Hours, but there are times I want it to go further and I want more of the story than will fit in a TV show. American Fire gave me exactly what I want out of a true crime novel. It’s well researched & pieced together beautifully.
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Monica Hesse is the national bestselling author of the true crime love story American Fire and the Edgar Award-winning young adult historical mystery novel Girl in the Blue Coat, which has been translated into a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the American Booksellers Association’s Indies Choice Award. She is a feature writer for the Washington Post, where she has covered royal weddings, dog shows, political campaigns, Academy Awards ceremonies, White House state dinners, and some events that felt like a mixture of all of the above. She has talked about these stories, and other things, on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, CSPAN, FOX and NPR, and she has been a winner of the Society for Feature Journalism’s Narrative Storytelling award, and a finalist for a Livingston Award and a James Beard Award. Monica lives in Maryland. with her husband and a brainiac dog.