American Fire | Monica Hesse

I’d like to start by saying I don’t read it often, but when I do I LOVE true crime!!!! My problem with non fiction is that it so often feels to me like reading a text book. And I’m not into that. Not in the slightest. I read for stories. I read to experience something emotionally and learn about it in the process. I can’t read something that lacks a narrative emotional connection. So when a true crime book crops up in my Book of the Month Club subscription I grab them. Undoubtedly, Truman Capote is the forever crowned king of true crime but I really enjoyed Monica Hesse’s look into a little known string of fires in a little known county in Virginia. 

American Fire, Monica Hesse

I was in my first few years of college when the fires took place in Accomack County, VA. I was not, admittedly, keeping up with the news at the time. I was working on my own struggles and didn’t have the bandwidth to let the goings on of the world in to stress me out as well. So I had no idea the fires took place. This book is my first look into them. And what a look it was. The first page of the book grabbed me and I read through it pretty quickly. The county and its decline was very interesting to read about. The string of 60 some odd arsons in mostly abandoned buildings but the occasional garage or church had me hooked. You don’t think fires are nearly as interesting as unprovoked murder, until you read the book. American Fire taught me that just because the crime isn’t violent doesn’t mean it doesn’t involve an interesting host of characters.

In 2012 Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick start up a small relationship fueled by lust that starts to become something more. It’s their small bright spot in a year of turmoil and trouble. What they don’t know, is that things stand to get a little worse. Charlie has had some trouble with drugs in the past and has done a few stints in jail for check forgery when the money ran out. Despite this, everyone in town likes him and thinks he’s a really decent guy. He works out of his step fathers auto body shop as a mechanic. Tonya is a single mother of two who works at a center for mentally challenged adults. Growing up she didn’t have many friends but in her adult years she became beautiful and enigmatic. After a few months the couple ran in to behavioral troubles with Tonya’s eldest son. Charlie’s mother, his constant supporter, passed away from cancer. The money they both made didn’t go quite far enough and they were having trouble with the physical aspects of their relationship. All of these things added up and the couple soon began lighting fires across the county. A way to expeirence an emotion or emotions that were lacking in their every day lives. The tale that follows is one that is extremely telling of the couple themselves but also of the ways America can fail us all in certain moments. 

If you have any interest at all in true crime novels, or are looking to experience your first American Fire is an excellent place to start. Jesse writes well. My only complaint is that I wish there had been more photos included in the publication, as well as a map depicting all the burn sites. If you guys pick it up, drop me a comment with your thoughts! 


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