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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Hardcover – July 11, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of July 2017: A passionate love affair is often described as an “inferno,” but in 2012 and 2013, boyfriend and girlfriend Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick turned the metaphor into reality as they lit 70-plus fires in derelict buildings across Virginia’s Accomack County. Monica Hesse’s spare but memorable prose sketches the true story of a once-prosperous county now in sharp economic decline, its derelict buildings easy targets for Smith and Bundick. But Accomack County’s plunging fortunes is the simplistic explanation for the arson epidemic, and Hesse pushes that aside to plumb the complicated personal relationships, the tight-knit community, and the stories told in small towns that can shape a person’s destiny just as surely as one’s actions. When Smith and Bundick set fire after fire—sometimes several a night—the exhausted volunteer firefighters in Accomack County band together to stop the arsonists putting a match to their way of life. Hesse can do with a handful of words what other writers do with paragraphs, and as she traces the intersecting paths of the amateur arsonists and the authorities determined to capture them, she reveals that every crime has its own personal, sometimes inscrutable DNA. --Adrian Liang, The Amazon Book Review
“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, 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
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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.