American Fire
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.

American Fire Details

TitleAmerican Fire
Author
FormatHardcover
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJul 11th, 2017
PublisherLiveright
ISBN1631490516
ISBN-139781631490514
Number of pages288 pages
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Crime, True Crime, Mystery, History

American Fire Review

  • Marika
    March 14, 2017
    True crime lovers will devour this story of how a small town in Virginia was almost decimated by deliberately set fires. 67 fires in just 5 months. 67. American Fire is written with a reporter's eye for details, with eyewitness accounts that makes for a combustible read. It's not why the fires are being set, but who's setting them that makes the story so shocking. For fans of Ann Rule.I read an advance copy and was not compensated.
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  • Marlene England
    March 5, 2017
    An absolutely fascinating story, and Hesse does an excellent job in the telling of it. I was hooked from the first page to the last.
  • Andrienne
    May 20, 2017
    Literary true crime - my favorite genre. This story will suck you in. Great writing and a compelling story.
  • SibylM
    May 15, 2017
    I received a free ARC of this book via Netgalley from the publisher, and an honest review was requested. This is one of the best true crime books I've ever read. Hesse does an amazing job in depicting the creepy, haunted atmosphere of the setting and story, in contradiction with the warmth and community of the people who were victims and crime fighters in this isolated part of America. This is a very hard book to put down! I also appreciated that the author did an excellent job of covering the l I received a free ARC of this book via Netgalley from the publisher, and an honest review was requested. This is one of the best true crime books I've ever read. Hesse does an amazing job in depicting the creepy, haunted atmosphere of the setting and story, in contradiction with the warmth and community of the people who were victims and crime fighters in this isolated part of America. This is a very hard book to put down! I also appreciated that the author did an excellent job of covering the legal (trial) phase of this crime story. I often feel like true crime books just gloss over what happens after the arrest -- "there was a trial, he was convicted, there was an appeal, the end." etc. But Hesse depicted the trial and the characters in the trial with depth and understanding and made that part of the story accessible and exciting as well. I am a librarian and will definitely be recommending this as a purchase for my library.
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  • Stephanie Crowe
    April 29, 2017
    An intriguing true crime story by journalist, Monica Hesse, which was mesmerizing from beginning to end. A small rural county in Virginia experienced a rash of fires over a period of 5 months and the culprit was not found. When an unexpected fire started and the arsonists were found, it stunned the county. It turned out that everyone knew the perpetrators. Hesse does a marvelous job reporting and is a masterful storyteller. Fascinating! Couldn’t put it down!
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  • Cynthia
    May 5, 2017
    Excellent true crime story. Just detailed enough,and just long enough.
  • Bryan Summers
    May 15, 2017
    Fascinating. I loved it.
  • Marie
    June 13, 2017
    I was provided an ARC by publisher, Liveright, in exchange for an honest review.Monica Hesse is a reporter who published a piece in 2014 that was on the very same story this book covers (it’s worth reading that article after / looking at it while reading this book because the pictures do add even more to the set-up of landscape, culture, and place that Hesse describes so well). Read this book, though. I mean sometimes reading the Wikipedia article as good / all you really want about whatever top I was provided an ARC by publisher, Liveright, in exchange for an honest review.Monica Hesse is a reporter who published a piece in 2014 that was on the very same story this book covers (it’s worth reading that article after / looking at it while reading this book because the pictures do add even more to the set-up of landscape, culture, and place that Hesse describes so well). Read this book, though. I mean sometimes reading the Wikipedia article as good / all you really want about whatever topic some book is about. But not this time. This is a gorgeously written book, a short, powerful punch of reporting with heart and grace.This is a book about a community an a way of life that is receding, about love as "an optimistic delusion," about how well we can possibly know the people in our communities and even those closest to us, and about human strengths and weaknesses in the face of the difficult challenges of an imperfect life. How do we prop ourselves up and keep going when life can be so cruel, or indifferent, or just dumb? That seems like a lot to ask of a story about a series of arson cases along the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the couple convicted of setting them. Though Hesse’s compassionate words and craft, it really isn’t too much to ask at all.This is a compelling work of relatively short nonfiction about rural America today that would offer book clubs plenty to talk about and all readers an engaging evening of thought provoking reading.
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  • Katie
    June 23, 2017
    Thank you to Liveright for the advance copy of this book. I was really excited to read this after hearing the publisher's pitch at BookExpo's Book Club Speed Dating. I enjoy the occasional true crime book and am especially interested when there seems to be more to the story than the typical [person commits crime, cops are confused, person gets arrested, trial, person reveals motives, person goes to jail] book. I was intrigued by the fact that the jacket blurb reveals who was setting the fires an Thank you to Liveright for the advance copy of this book. I was really excited to read this after hearing the publisher's pitch at BookExpo's Book Club Speed Dating. I enjoy the occasional true crime book and am especially interested when there seems to be more to the story than the typical [person commits crime, cops are confused, person gets arrested, trial, person reveals motives, person goes to jail] book. I was intrigued by the fact that the jacket blurb reveals who was setting the fires and the book was actually more about how everything unfolded.This book did not disappoint in plot. The relationship between Charlie and Tonya was a bit crazy, but it was still impossible to understand what would motivate their crimes. The descriptions of Accomack, its problems, its volunteers and the depiction of small town life in a near-forgotten part of Virginia were interesting and lively.My only problem with the book was the fact that it needed a stronger editor. I was a bit surprised by Hesse's use of the word "crummy" twice in 60 pages and I think some of the writing could have been shored up a bit. Highly recommended for fans of unusual true crime.
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  • Oliver Bateman
    June 17, 2017
    a great big VQR/Harper's/New Yorker/[insert prestige mag] piece of literary journalism, something that could've been treasured at 30-40 pgs but is a bit overlong at 250. i feel for hesse, having to "show her work" after dropping a couple powerful sentences that are > all the sources cited in a given chapter. good, though, and sure to win some prizes.
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  • Karen
    May 26, 2017
    I received this book as an ARC from the publisher. Normally true crime is not my cup of tea, but I really liked this book because it stretches the genre by relating the atmosphere of the emptying out Virginia County to the demise of small town America. Hesse also covered the ins and outs of being a volunteer fireman and of the motivations of firebugs in an easy to read way. But what was best about the book was the really great reporting -- she organized a ton of material in a logical way that wa I received this book as an ARC from the publisher. Normally true crime is not my cup of tea, but I really liked this book because it stretches the genre by relating the atmosphere of the emptying out Virginia County to the demise of small town America. Hesse also covered the ins and outs of being a volunteer fireman and of the motivations of firebugs in an easy to read way. But what was best about the book was the really great reporting -- she organized a ton of material in a logical way that was also suspenseful, even if one knew who the culprit was from the get go. The notes at the end also supported her reporting in such a way that this book could easily serve as a primer for advanced journalism classes.
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  • Kathy
    May 7, 2017
    ok the best part of this book was the end. (not trying to be smart this time) but the writing seemed better towards the end.
  • Ilana
    June 26, 2017
    Fascinating. A fuller review to come elsewhere.
  • Noorilhuda
    June 16, 2017
    It's good.
  • Kati Polodna
    May 8, 2017
    Reminds me of "Hillbilly Elegy" plus a lot of fire.
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