American Fire by Monica Hesse :: Review

American Fire by Monica Hesse :: Review

Monday, August 7, 2017

American Fire by Monica Hesse :: Outlandish Lit Review
American Fire by Monica Hesse
Publisher: Liveright. July 11, 2017.
Pages: 255
Genre: True Crime
Source: Publisher




What a true crime time to be alive! Podcasts and shows focused on real murders are super popular right now. But let us not forget an equally fascinating crime, the object of Sia and Rihanna's affection (or, at least, attention) in several music videos: arson! What else is super popular? The examination of rural American life. This book gives you both, with a side of thorough research and beautiful writing. American Fire is the story of Accomack county in rural Virginia that in 2012 was victim to 67 fires within a five-month period. It's the story of the two people, crazy in love, who set 67 (mostly) abandoned buildings ablaze undetected, and why.

"I spent the next two years trying to understand why he did it. The answer, inasmuch as there is an answer for these things, involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms (the chopped meat sold in the frozen food aisle) intrigue, and America. America: the way it's disappointing sometimes, the way it's never what it used to be."

The narrative that Washington Post feature writer Monica Hesse has wrangled is complicated, yet extremely coherent and compelling. We learn a lot about firefighting and the investigation of arson. Seriously, I had no idea I would be so interested in learning about volunteer firefighting and its impact on a community. Hesse includes historical and psychological examinations of arsonists, as well as an analysis of the area’s economic situation. Accomack County is an isolated place under pressure from the rest of society to change. The ways that the residents made money are no longer profitable or no longer exist. Many of the residents feel forgotten. To then be betrayed by somebody in the community, who remains unidentified for so long, is an impossible struggle.

Hesse also looks at what people will do when they are deep in love and under a considerable amount of stress. Charlie Smith, the man who pleaded guilty to the fires, is a fascinatingly earnest and troubled person. More fascinating is his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick, and the dark shift that took place in their epic love story. This is great true crime, featuring details about the arsons, interrogations, and trials, with a “This American Life” tone of storytelling. If you have an interest in true crime, but haven't read a true crime book, this is a great place to start.


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