Accomack county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia was a community in decline. Once an agricultural powerhouse, this remote region was slowly fading into obscurity as the area's wealth and population were drained by decades of economic hardship. Then, one cold November evening, the fires started.
Monica Hesse's new book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, tells the story of a love story that went horribly wrong, and the hunt for a pair of arsonists who terrified an entire county. When a struggling mechanic named Charlie Smith was arrested and charged with sixty-seven counts of arson, it was only the beginning of what became a twisted tale. His confession unwound into a surprising love story, implicating his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick.
I found the story to be fascinating and thoroughly engrossing. Hesse does fabulous job of setting the scene and delving into the details of the lives impacted by the fires, including law enforcement, firefighters, and even the arsonists themselves. She paints a picture of a once-proud region now nothing more than a backwater, poverty-stricken and forgotten. It was obvious that Hesse had achieved a level of intimacy with the people of the area while researching for American Fire. The fact alone adds to the brilliance of the text as it provides keen insights into the impact of the fires that you'd never get from television or newspapers.
American Fire started as an article that Hesse wrote for the Washington Post. The article can be read here. The article, however, only scratches the surface of the story of how two lovers terrified an entire county for five months between November 2012 and April 2013. The book delves much deeper into the personalities, investigation, and motives behind the fires. It's a compelling and well-written account that kept me turning the page and kept up at night. This is a book I'd highly recommend.