Publication Date: July 11th, 2017
This review does not contain spoilers.
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.
I enjoyed this book well enough; however, I did find myself getting a little bored near the end. I thought the story of this case dragged on a bit too long, and it could have been shortened just a hair. I had never heard of this case though, and I did find it quite interesting. Arson seems to be a crime that you don’t often hear much about, and these particular people decided to set fire to a bunch of abandoned homes for no particular reason, which I found interesting. I liked how the author talked about the history behind those who commit arson, and the shared traits that many of them have with each other. I also enjoyed learning about Accomack, my husband is from Virginia and I am not, so I learned a little bit more about the state that I did not already know. While this was not the best nonfiction book I have read so far this year, it was still quite good. I think it is worth a read if you are someone interested in true crime. Overall I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.