2017 Book Review, BOTM Club

Book Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse

4⭐️’s from me

Goodreads Summary: “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.”

My Review:

Lately I have found myself more and more attracted to the true crime drama, both in written form and film. In many ways it can be more thought-provoking than fiction – because you know it actually happened.

I had heard rumblings about American Fire before it became published. So naturally, when I had the chance to get a copy – I made sure to get it. American Fire tells the captivating story of a couple, Charlie Smith and Tonya Burdick, who set fire to sixty-seven abandoned buildings across Accomack County, Virginia. As Hesse sets out to discuss the fires, we learn that this is so much more than just a plethora of fires.

Hesse uses her journalistic skills for an in-depth exploration of the historical, psychological, and motivational explanations behind arson in order to expertly relate her research to the events in Accomack County.  She explores the personal histories of Charlie and Tonya; And with that comes the exploration of rural America today, a different exploration of identity altogethers. The struggles of families in Accomack County could ring true in many rural American towns today making the story so much more intriguing.

Then on top of it all, this is ultimately a love story – a love story that Hesse compares to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and other crime couples of the ages. An age-old motive, love is at heart of these arsons and, perhaps, the reason for their unraveling.

A must-read for true-crime lovers. Hesse will have you hooked from the very beginning.


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