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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Kindle Edition
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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
One of Amazon’s 20 Best Books of the Year
Named one of the Best Books of the Year by Buzzfeed, Bustle, NPR, NYLON, and Thrillist
Finalist for the Goodreads Book Award (Nonfiction)
Finalist for the Edgar Award (Best Fact Crime)
A Book of the Month Club Selection
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection
“A brisk, captivating and expertly crafted reconstruction of a community living through a time of fear.... Masterful.” —Washington Post
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.
“One of the year’s best and most unusual true-crime books” (Christian Science Monitor), American Fire brings to vivid life the reeling county of Accomack. “Ace reporter” (Entertainment Weekly) Monica Hesse spent years investigating the story, emerging with breathtaking portraits of the arsonists—troubled addict Charlie Smith and his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick. Tracing the shift in their relationship from true love to crime spree, Hesse also conjures the once-thriving coastal community, decimated by a punishing economy and increasingly suspicious of their neighbors as the culprits remained at large. Weaving the story into the history of arson in the United States, the critically acclaimed American Fire re-creates the anguished nights this quiet county lit up in flames, evoking a microcosm of rural America—a land half-gutted before the fires began.
― Jennifer Senior, New York Times
"The propulsive pleasure of American Fire rests in author Monica Hesse's decision not to force a thing. The book has the brisk diligence of big-city journalism (Hesse writes for the Washington Post) and the languid chattiness of the small town where she lived while researching it. . . . Hesse gathers the pieces but leaves connections to the reader. When they snap together, the feeling is a bit like gazing upon a blaze you've just lit."
― Karl Vick, Time
"Hesse, who covered the arsons for The Washington Post, is an ace reporter, but she’s an even better storyteller. American Fire is as propulsive as a crime thriller. A-"
― Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
"In American Fire, journalist Monica Hesse faces . . . quandaries of interpretation, faulty memory and lies, and deals eloquently with the he-said-she-said elements of her story. . . . What emerges is a vivid depiction of a community that is struggling economically in present-day America, but is rich in its human connections."
― Ilana Masad, NPR.org
"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
"One of the year's best and most unusual true-crime books."
― Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor
"Mesmerizing. . . . Hesse recounts the fires and their investigation and the subsequent trials with cinematic immediacy."
― Jonathan Miles, Garden & Gun
"Accomack County, Virginia, is utterly unique, but not completely atypical of America’s forgotten places: bypassed by progress on the wrong side of Chesapeake Bay, dotted with houses rotting into literal tinder. Hesse, a Washington Post reporter, finds true-crime gold here . . . . Hesse forgoes paint-by-numbers suspense, revealing the culprits early on before backing up into their hard-knock love story, their eventual arrest, and perceptive snapshots of an unusually vivid corner of drug-racked Red America."
― Boris Katchka, Vulture
"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, Real Simple
"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, Booklist, starred review
"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."
― Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"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, Tallahassee Democrat
"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."
― Publishers Weekly
"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
"America in decline, a love gone berserk, and fire…lots and lots of it. If you pick up this book and open it to the first page, I double-dog dare you to put it down."
― Dennis Covington, author of Salvation on Sand Mountain
"A rare combination of reportorial know-how and literary flair, American Fire is a page-turner. Crimes and chaos, detectives and firefighters, headlines and red herrings, and it all boils down to a Gothic love story gone wrong. You need time to investigate a story like this, following the police leads all the way to the hidden-in-plain-sight, off-kilter individuals generating the mayhem; you need space to tell a story like this, fact-based and evocative. People who think they don’t like nonfiction will devour this book. People who love nonfiction will love it, too."
― Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Underdogs --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
- ASIN : B01M3QH76T
- Publisher : Liveright; Reprint edition (July 11, 2017)
- Publication date : July 11, 2017
- Language : English
- File size : 7679 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Sticky notes : On Kindle Scribe
- Print length : 259 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #474,650 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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Fire is also scary. Whether it’s a forest fire or a house fire it has the capacity to really make a person fearful. I remember standing in my living room watching the fire burn the mountainside across the river. My husband spent the days outside, wearing a mask against the smoke, prepping our property in case the embers started flying and caused the fire to jump the river.
Imagine living in a small community that has perhaps seen its best times but continues to struggle along and suddenly houses start burning. Sometimes two and three a night. You don’t know where the next fire is going to be. Is the wind is going to whip up and cause the fire to blow an ember into your yard and start your house on fire? Will I go to sleep only to be awakened by sirens yet again?
Worse, you are one of the volunteer firemen. Do you realize that most of the country gets its fire response from volunteers? Many of those fire companies are struggling as the young people move out of rural areas and the population ages. So again imagine those volunteer fire companies, with men and women who also have to work having to go out night after night to put out one, two or three fires.
This went on for around 5 months. The area lived in a state of tension as neighbors wondered, police wondered and the FBI wondered who could be setting the fires. The area is very rural, the houses were mostly abandoned; they authorities tried to predict where the arsonist would strike but there were just too many possible targets. Until one night they got lucky.
Ms. Hesse writes in a very compelling manner. Her book started with a feature for The Washington Post where she is a feature writer. She instructs her reader in the economic conditions of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, about the various types of psychiatric conditions that could lead to someone becoming and arsonist and on areas of fire science and at no time do you feel overwhelmed or bored.
I am not spilling beans by telling you there are two arsonists – a couple – as it is disclosed in the synopsis. The information is given in the opening of the book so you know from the outset who is committing the arson fires. The male, Charlie is deeply profiled and you really get to know him as the pages turn. The woman, Tonya is more of an enigma. She did not make herself available to Ms. Hesse as broadly as Charlie did so this does leave you with some questions at the end. If you have a person that refuses to answer the questions it is just going to leave some things hanging. Such is the problem with real life.
I read this in one sitting. I did find it utterly fascinating. Now, I do live with a fireman and he’s been answering calls for the entirety of our marriage so I am sure that played a role. Not to mention all of those flames this summer.
As I wrote, fire is fascinating.
It was a nightmare that lasted for nearly five months. Between November 2012 and April 1, 2013, a total of 86 fires had been deliberately set in remote Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. For the most part, the fires were being set in long abandoned buildings located in extremely desolate areas. It has been estimated that were literally thousands of such buildings dotting the landscape in Accomack County, a sign of declining economic fortunes over the past several decades. Despite the best efforts of state and local police and fire officials very little progress had been made in determining who was setting these fires. It was an extremely frustrating, costly, and baffling situation. Monica Hesse is a feature writer for the Washington Post. She chronicles these disturbing events in her highly entertaining new book “American Fire, Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land”. I simply could not put this book down and read it in just a few sittings. This is easily the best book I have read this year.
If you are like me you have probably never even heard of Accomack County. According to Hesse, the heyday of this place was in the 1930’s when a resort complex called Whispering Pines was built. It was the site of one of the fires in March of 2013. In those days Accomack boasted a vigorous farming community as well. But over the next several decades market conditions changed, people moved away, and the place began to deteriorate. In “American Fire” you will meet the two individuals deemed responsible for all of these fires. Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick had very checkered pasts and were involved in what turned out to be a very complicated relationship. Meanwhile, you will also be introduced to the team of state and local officials charged with putting an end to this reign of terror. You will discover many of the tactics they employed to finally trip up the arsonists and put them behind bars.
The story told in “American Fire, Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” becomes even more incredible when you realize that volunteers fought the fires in all of these tiny communities. Night after night for nearly five months these heroic men and women would have to drag themselves out of a warm bed to battle the next blaze. Simply amazing! So if you are looking for a great book to take along with you on your summer vacation this year I would highly recommend “American Fire”. It reads like a novel but this is a true story. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.