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

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

by Monica Hesse


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One of NPR's Best Books of 2017

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

A breathtaking feat of reportage, American Fire combines procedural with love story, redefining American tragedy for our time.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631494512
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 100,239
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Monica Hesse is a feature writer for the Washington Post. Winner of the Edgar Award and a finalist for a Livingston and James Beard Award, she is also the author of Girl in the Blue Coat. She lives in Washington, DC.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

1 "Charge That Line!" 3

2 "The South Starts Here" 12

3 "Orange in the Sky" 21

4 Charlie 35

5 Monomanie Incendiaire 43

6 Tonya 50

7 "Like A Ghost" 57

8 "Tell Us What You Know about That" 71

9 Charlie and Tonya 82

10 SchröDinger's Evidence 90

11 The Eastern Shore Arsonist Hunters 97

12 "I've seen Enough Ass to Know" 105

13 "Like Hell Was Coming Up Through the Ground" 113

14 Tonya And Charlie 120

15 "They're Not Hunters At All" 127

16 "I didn't Light Them All" 131

17 "Someday they'll go Down Together" 138

18 "Everybody Has A Reason For Why They Do Things in Life" 144

19 "I can't Tell You Something I don't Know" 156

20 "Midnight Without Makeup" 169

21 The Broken Things 173

22 "Time To Wake Up" 185

23 Burned 194

24 "We'd Done It Before" 196

25 "They Came Out Of Everywhere" 215

26 "Moral Turpitude" 225

27 What Happened Next 229

28 "It's over" 236

Acknowledgments 241

Notes 245

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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Started alittle slow but book overall delightful. Area (Rt13) familiar to me in my travels so book had added meaning. Recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was riveted to this story of fire, firefighting, law and order, and love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly engaging. I couldn't put it down.