Book Review – American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Why did I stop reading so much non-fiction? I’ll partially blame it on becoming a book blogger and finding so many great books from the community, rather than just browsing the stacks at my local bookstore. However, I will be changing that, because American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse, was such a wonderful read.

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.

It’s hard to really have a detailed review of a non-fiction novel, as there isn’t any characterization or plot to really dive into. With that being said, this review is going to be short and sweet.

The actual true crime story that this book follows is very engrossing. Hesse is able to write the events as a story that flows so well. Her writing is really what drives the book from start to finish. She completely transports you to Accomack County during those crazy 6 months of the arson attacks. It takes a really good writer to be able to present a non-fiction novel in an engaging way, turning it almost into a novel. Hesse shows you just how to do that with this book.

To talk about arson is to talk about buildings burning down. To talk about the term 'pyromania' is really to talk about the unfathomable mysteries of the human brain and the human heart- Why do we do things- Why do.png

Another fascinating part of this book, is the actual community of Accomack County. The cast of real-life characters that pop in and out throughout the story, are just plain amazing. Sometimes they had me laugh aloud, other times shake my head at their nonsense, and even occasionally internally enthusiastically cheer for them. If you’re from a small town like me, you’ll immediately recognize these people as someone in your own life.

I don’t want to go too deep into the details surrounding the actual arson crimes, as that’s what really drives the story and provides a little bit of suspense. I just highly suggest you pick up this book if you find yourself really curious as to what was happening, the reasoning behind it, etc. Because trust me, you’ll be hooked from the very first page!

Final Verdict: 4/5 Stars

Have you read American Fire? If so, what did you think of it? Do you read non-fiction novels? What ones would you recommend?