American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
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.
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A captivating narrative about arson, persistent law enforcers, an unlikely romantic relationship, and a courtroom drama. . . . Throughout, the author offers a nuanced portrait of a way of life unknown to most who have never resided on or visited the Eastern Shore. A true-crime saga that works in every respect.
Mesmerizing. . . . Hesse recounts the fires and their investigation and the subsequent trials with cinematic immediacy.--Jonathan Miles
Hesse enters the compelling narrative with restraint in probing, essayistic analyses. She tells the story of the fires and of the Eastern Shore and the people she got to know there with an earned familiarity that, at the same time, speaks of the unknowability of a vast, rapidly changing nation.--Annie Bostrom
One of the year's best and most unusual true-crime books.--Randy Dotinga
A brisk, captivating and expertly crafted reconstruction of a community living through a time of fear, confusion and danger. . . . Masterful.--Scott W. Berg
Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse has created a near-masterpiece in American Fire. This true crime book -- about a series of arsons on the rural Virginia coast and the Bonnie-and-Clyde duo who committed them -- is not just about the crimes themselves, but about the community those crimes affected. It's well-written and eye-opening, and I couldn't put it down. For fans of Hillbilly Elegy and In Cold Blood.--Annie Butterworth Jones
Washington Post reporter Hesse leads readers on an extended tour of a bizarre five-month crime spree in rural Accomack County, Va.: a series of over 80 arsons, of predominantly abandoned buildings, committed by a local couple. . . . A page-turning story of love gone off the rails.
American Fire is an excellent summer vacation companion. It has all the elements of a lively crime procedural: courtroom drama, forensic trivia, toothsome gossip, vexed sex. It also happens to be a very good portrait of a region in economic decline. . . . As with "S-Town" and the best episodes of "This American Life," Hesse has managed to wring tension and excitement out of a story with a known ending.--Jennifer Senior
American Fire is not only a twisted love story but also a portrait of Accomack County, Virginia, a once-wealthy farming community crumbling from economic hardship.--Nora Horvath
American Fire is a wonderful book of page-turning, true-crime reportage, exquisitely reported with both humanity and humor. Books like this remind us, in an uncertain time, of what journalism is supposed to look like.--Nick Reding, author of Methland