Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse
Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: Audible
Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.
Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.
Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.
But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.
“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.
Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.
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