American Fire

American Fire

Love, Arson, and Life in A Vanishing Land

Book - 2017
Average Rating:
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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.

Publisher: New York, N.Y. : Liveright Publishing Corporation, [2017]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9781631490514
1631490516
Branch Call Number: 364.1642097
Characteristics: 255 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm

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PimaLib_NormS Mar 14, 2018

In the literary world, there are few things I like better than a good ol’ 364 (364 refers to the Dewey Decimal number for criminology, otherwise known as true crime). Monica Hesse has penned a page-turner in “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land”. I have read quite a few true crime stories over the years, and I never cease to be amazed at what people will do in the name of love. Of course, it usually is someone’s warped, even sick, version of love, but still. It has been said that love is blind, and the self-professed in love fire-setters in “American Fire” seemingly were blind to the possible consequences of running up to a building and torching it. These fires took place in Virginia’s Eastern Shore area, which is the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. It is economically depressed, rural, and somewhat isolated. It was rather easy for the arsonists to approach a building, light it up, and then take off. They were able to set 60+ fires in 5 ½ months before they were apprehended. It put quite a strain on the local volunteer fire departments and law enforcement, and Hesse does an excellent job of weaving their points of view together with the arsonists’ to form a coherent, even gripping, narrative. In other words, I liked it.

f
forrestparnell
Mar 01, 2018

This book is written like a fictional story of a couple gone down the wrong path. Family neglect, drugs etc. are the usual suspects. What makes this "tale" so interesting is that it's all true. I could not put this down. Once I started I was fully committed & driven to learn the ending.

AL_PAMELAH Jan 16, 2018

Ever wonder why people set fires? In the case of the 80 fires set in 5 months in Accomack County, Virginia, love might have had something to do with it. An interesting look at life on the rural Eastern Shore, and why people do what they really know they shouldn't.

p
pamelah1
Jan 16, 2018

Ever wonder why people set fires? In the case of the 80 fires set in 5 months in Accomack County, Virginia, love might have had something to do with it. An interesting look at life on the rural Eastern Shore, and why people do what they really know they shouldn't.

LPL_LizS Nov 03, 2017

A fascinating look into the daily lives of citizens of rural Accomack County, Virginia who are trying to deal with a devastating string of crimes. Hesse captures the arson in great journalistic detail, weaving a lot of information into a compelling narrative. These fires illuminate the deep struggles of a small community with a dying economy, where everyone is just looking for a better life.

t
topekasue
Oct 31, 2017

Reads as one would expect since it's a journalist's expanded writings of a featured crime story. Well-told tale of a Virginia county forced to adjust life to a never-ending series of arson fires that take a tremendous toll on all its residents, including the arsonists.

m
MplsTA
Oct 22, 2017

The story isn't just about the many fires but the person(s) responsible for setting them. What is most amazing is the "why". It's a twisted and sad story but compelling.

Cynthia_N Aug 23, 2017

It was astonishing to read how many fires were set before the culprits were caught. There were people camping at abandoned home sites and cameras set up but it still took months before they were able to catch the guilty parties. Good read!

AL_KATI May 11, 2017

Sort of like "Hillbilly Elegry" but with arson. Great if you like true crime and social history. Read in a single night.

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