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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a…

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

by Monica Hesse

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I love true crime. Why people unravel psychologically and what happens when they do endlessly fascinates me. The author didn't seem to have much of an exciting case to work with. Basically it boils down to two losers who go around setting fires, make that a lot of fires, and who tie their community up in knots but none of the fires hurt anyone. For the most part the fires are set in abandoned buildings and camps. With that basic premise the author does a great job of getting into the mind of the two arsonists. She is even able to make them seem mildly sympathetic. I thought she did a great job with showing how two people who alone may be harmless can get together and when combined become criminals. While I don't think Charlie and Tonya rose to the level of Bonnie and Clyde there is no doubt that that they had their small rural Virginia community in a tizzy for the run of their crime spree.

I have read some true crime books where the case was fascinating and the writing was so poor that it made the story boring. In this case I didn't find arson fires where no one was hurt to be particularly compelling but the author's ability to render the details brought the story to life and made it memorable. You could feel what it was like to live in a suffocating small community as your life quickly ran out of options. The fires became an outward expression of the destruction within. The book was thoroughly researched and extremely well written. This may be my favorite true crime book of the year. ( )
  arielfl | Oct 7, 2017 |
There is no mystery surrounding who the serial arsonists are in AMERICAN FIRE. We learn their identities in the first few pages. Instead Monica Hesse has another intention for her intriguing examination of events surrounding over 80 arsons of abandoned structures in rural Virginia over five months in 2012-2013. She seeks to explain the motives. In so doing, Hesse explores the impacts of local geography, sociology, economic, and especially the strange behavior of the arsonists. Does she discover an answer? Probably not. But her reliance on extensive interviewing does produce a nuanced portrait of a myriad of contributing factors as well as the community responses to the crimes. The following comment seems telling in this regard: “…inasmuch as there is an answer for these things, (they) involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms . . . intrigue, and America.”

A key element in the story is its setting. Accomack County, Virginia is isolated on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay. A hundred years ago, it was the richest county in America benefiting from prosperous farms, coastal shipping and tourism. All of that is gone today. The economy is in decline, and the terrain is characterized by hundreds of abandoned buildings. Most people with jobs work for low wages in menial and repetitive labor for the chicken industry (Perdue or Tyson). Although clearly not thriving, the people seem to be persevering in a trusting environment where “doors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended.”

Hesse sees Accomack County as a metaphor for the economic decline in rural America in the 21st Century. As one of her main themes, she capitalizes on its inhabitants’ sense of having been left behind by the rest of America. However, the book stands out from most of the other recent examinations of the rise of the alt right in red state America by also considering the strangeness of the crime of arson, how crime waves can influence communities and the how love can drive people to exhibit inexplicably bizarre behaviors.

Characterizing Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick as the “Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore” is a tortured analogy. About all this pair had in common with the famous outlaw duo was a co-dependent love story. Charlie and Tonya were well known in their community but lived on the margins. Their crimes weren’t particularly deadly as all of their targets were abandoned buildings and no one died as a result of the fires they set. Charlie was not very bright and had a penchant for drugs and petty crimes. Strangely, he once served as a volunteer firefighter. His key failing seems to have been a belief that he had found the love of his life in Tonya Bundick. But for some unexplained reason, he was unable to satisfy her sexually. Tonya was a strong-willed person who enjoyed being the center of attention. Undoubtedly, she manipulated her malleable partner to set those buildings alight. However, because she refused to be interviewed by Hesse and never admitted responsibility for the crimes, her motives remain unclear.

The actions by the community and first responders were indeed commendable. The community reacted with compassion and unity. “Nobody was driving drunk, nobody was burgling.” The police did their duty, sleeping in tents, manning checkpoints, mounting surveillance cameras and recruiting profilers. The firefighters slept at their stations and went out on multiple calls each night. As a reflection of community support for their work, they “became intimately acquainted with the baking skills of every sympathetic household on the Eastern Shore.” All told, Hesse calculates that the crimes required 26,378 hours of work by the Virginia State Police and 14,924 hours of overtime over five months.

The final capture of the culprits was exciting, but the legal aftermath was disappointing. ( )
  ozzer | Oct 7, 2017 |
Accomack County, is a rural community, on the eastern shore of Virginia. Once, a booming area, it has suffered a sharp economic decline, like scores of rural areas throughout the country.
In November, 2012 abandoned houses and buildings were being set on fire here and would eventually total 80-plus fires, for the next five months. Volunteer firefighters and other investigators were working around the clock to find this arsonist, stretching their manpower and the municipal water sources to their limits.
Eventually Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic, along with his fiance, Tonya Bundick, were caught and tried for these crimes. A Bonnie and Clyde of mass arson. A completely twisted love affair.
The author, a Washington Post reporter, was assigned to cover this case, so Hesse followed this case closely, from the onset. It also helps that she is a terrific writer, with a strong narrative flow. One of the best true crime books I have read in awhile. ( )
  msf59 | Oct 1, 2017 |
The true story of a Virginia couple that set more than 80 buildings on fire. Written by a journalist covering the event, this book is a fast read. I loved the way she told the reader who the criminals were from the very beginning. The big reveal wasn't their identity, but instead, it was a reflection on what could drive people to commit those acts and a look at the far-reaching consequences of their decisions. A great piece of nonfiction writing. ( )
  bookworm12 | Sep 5, 2017 |
Subtitle: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land ( )
  Elishibai | Aug 20, 2017 |
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