“American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land”, by Monica Hesse

Sad, strange events are brought to life in Monica Hesse’s “American Fire”. Hesse takes what would probably be just an average true crime story and elevates it to something more by providing social, economic and historic context. The result is a very interesting and sometimes sympathetic look at a crime wave that shook a small Virginia community.

The basis for “American Fire” is a series of arson fires that were set on the eastern shore of Virginia during a five month period, beginning in November, 2011. Before the fiery spree was done, 67 mostly vacant buildings had been set on fire. 67! Several local, state and federal agencies were involved in trying to catch the arsonists. Even some private citizens got into the hunt. Who were these elusive arsonists? Were they criminal masterminds? Nope. Just a simpleton and his vain, needy girlfriend, who didn’t know when to quit.

The book begins with the first of the fires and it gives the author an opportunity to introduce some of the firefighting aspects of the story. Throughout the course of the book, we learn more about how this rural community relies on a shrinking pool of volunteer firefighters. We also learn about the toll the fires (all set at night) took on these volunteers, many of whom started sleeping in the fire station in order to reduce their response times to the inevitable late night alarms. These volunteers were real heroes and I hope they got more volunteers as a result of the arsons.

The first “scene” also introduces the vacant building epidemic in this part of the eastern shore. This first house had been abandoned a few years prior when its elderly owner left to live in a nursing home. Other buildings that burn are summer homes, vacant commercial properties and a once posh but now derelict resort that serves as a metaphor for this region’s economic history. This county was once the wealthiest rural county in America, but has fallen on hard times, resulting in a decreasing population and a corresponding abandonment of homes and business properties.

Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick thought it would be a good idea to to light all of these buildings on fire. Charlie was an auto mechanic who was also a recovering drug addict and had spent time in jail. He was simple-minded and insecure in his relationships. Hesse paints him in a pretty sympathetic light as a guy who just never had a chance in life and certainly not against the manipulations of his girlfriend. Tonya was a former nurse’s aide and single mother of two who had to quit working in order to care for her troubled son. She was a regular at a local bar where her tube tops and unnaturally orange skin made her very distinctive. Hesse portrays her as vain, delusional and hard.

Bored and broke, Charlie and Tonya started burning buildings as a form of entertainment, stress relief and proof of Charlie’s devotion to Tonya. They were amateurs, but they got away with burning 66 buildings. If they had had the discipline to quit, they likely wouldn’t have been caught. But their luck finally ran out and then their “love” couldn’t survive the stress of a police investigation. They turned on each other and now they’re in prison for a very long time.

“American Fire” really kept my attention and parts of it were even riveting. It was well researched and skillfully told. If you enjoy nonfiction about crime or current events, this might be the book for you.

Ok, “American Fire” was January’s discussion book so I’m looking forward to everyone’s comments. If you need help getting started, try answering these questions:

1. One of the things I enjoy about reading nonfiction is learning about things (like arson) that I never would have researched on my own. What did you learn about from this book? And did this book inspire you to google anything (like photos of Bonnie and Clyde – I’ll admit it)?

2. If you were a resident of Accomack County, would you have been more likely to have done your sleuthing on Facebook or by camping out and trying to catch the arsonists redhanded?

3. Did you find yourself feeling sorry for Charlie? And what was your reaction to Tonya?

Cheers!

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9 thoughts on ““American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land”, by Monica Hesse

  1. I was a little hesitant to read a book about arson since I live in a fire prone area and worry about unstable people taking advantage of the opportunity. I am glad I read this novel though. Monica Hesse gave a captivating account of the crime spree along with a history of the area explaining changes that happened along the Eastern Shore and to its people. I have to confess to googling Accomack County because I couldn’t picture the geography- even though I lived in northern Virginia as a child and I’m named Virginia!

    The descriptions of the great number of people involved with solving the crime was interesting and I was amused that one expert even used a technique described in the television show Nu3mbers to help pinpoint the work site or home of the arsonist. In the end, Charlie and Tonya showed how easily and unplanned the fires were set, adding to my unease of living where I do when we are under a red flag alert.

    It’s always enlightening to read the author’s acknowledgments at the end of a novel. I was happy to read that Hesse did not find small-town life to be closed-off with no one willing to talk to her. Stereotypes! Also interesting is that this story started as a 6000 word article for a newspaper before she was talked into writing a book about the crime spree. She lived among the people of Accomack County for several months to do her research and was even voted in as a support member for the fire station. Her obvious warm connection to the people of Accomack County translates into a novel about a sad couple’s fall into unforgivable thrill-seeking among a community that won’t give up its spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Virginia! It didn’t even dawn on me that this would be a such a sensitive topic for you. Makes sense, especially after the year your region has had. I had to google Accomack County, too. Based on the map, it looks like prime oceanfront real estate, so it’s a little surprising it’s in decline. But maybe the stinky chicken farms are keeping vacationers away. Also had the same reaction to the openness the author experienced from the “small town” first responders. It wasn’t surprising to me, at all. 🙂

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  2. Greetings from Germany! You have international followers of your blog!

    I too was captivated by this story and read through it very quickly. Of particular interest to me was how Hesse put forth the story. From the beginning, the reader knows who did it. I was expecting a Dateline type of whodunit but that’s now what this was. So, in that regard, there was no “mystery” yet the story is so well told that I still found myself wanting to read more to find out how they were eventually caught and why they did it. And as Michelle points out, it is amazingly lucky that they were finally caught. If they would have stopped, it appears that the authorities really were baffled as to who was behind these crimes.

    I too googled Accomack County so that I would have a better understanding of the region Hesse described. But as I read, I thought over and over that this could be virtually any of the small town areas that I have lived – Indiana, Alabama, and even Kansas. Change the location and maybe the accent but the people could be very similar. And I think that is part of the allure to this book – many of us could probably envision this happening in an area we know well.

    A part of the book that I was not completely satisfied with was the “why” they did it. As Michelle described above, they were bored, broke, stressed out, and lacking entertainment. And while all of that is true, there are lots of folks like that, not only in Accomack County but throughout the US, and they aren’t out setting fires. And perhaps that’s just it – it is difficult for the rest of us to really understand why an arson would do what they do, and especially to be able to have an accomplice throughout.

    An excellent book about a shrinking small American town that could be anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Guten tag, George!

      I’m so glad you liked the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      That’s a really good point about how the book kept your interest (and mine) despite knowing who the culprits were. I suppose that’s a challenge all writers of true crime stories have to contend with.

      Yes, this could have been any rural area or small town in America. I keep hoping with the increasing number of people who can work from home, and the flexibility that gives them in regards to where they live, that small towns will start to make a comeback. There’s something to be said about small town living!

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  3. I agree, Michelle–this was a riveting read. Thanks for suggesting it because I think I would have missed it otherwise! I started it while down with the flu, which gave me the time to really sink in to the story. As downbeat as the book was, Hesse’s writing kept me coming back to see how Charlie and Tonya’s story would play out.

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  4. Hi Michelle! This is Emily Belin, George’s daughter writing from Chicago! Thank you for the great book suggestion. I have always loved the mystery/crime genre and this book definitely kept me captivated.

    The fact that this book was nonfiction particularly interested me. I, too, looked up Accomack county to try and wrap my head around how dozens of fires could be set with the arsonists undetected. It would have appeared to the average citizen to be a mastermind with an ax to grind, when we, the reader, know all along that it is the neighborhood dunce, Charlie Smith and his manipulative lover. Michelle, I like your description of Tonya as vain and needy. She is a complicated character, who I imagine at her core was deeply unhappy. I wonder if she was ever in love with Charlie, or if she just found him amusing and was amused by the things she could make him do for her.

    To answer your first question about learning new things from nonfiction, yes I absolutely agree! Arson is a perplexing crime. My only other exposure to arson, from my (pretty expansive, I’ll admit) Dateline and other real-life mystery TV show watching, is arson with the purpose of covering another crime. Arson as a standalone crime was new to me. It seemed addictive for Charlie and Tonya. I’m wondering if it was the adrenaline rush from the crime itself, or if it was the adrenaline rush she felt from the things she could make him do for her and he felt from pleasing her. You would think it would get old after the first few, especially because they aren’t even sticking around to watch the mesmerizing flames. Also I absolutely googled images of Bonnie and Clyde and read their Wikipedia page!

    To answer your second question, the millennial in me likely would have done most of my sleuthing online. It was amazing to me that authorities and volunteers were camping out for weeks, hoping to get lucky. While Tonya was clearly involved on the Accomack Arsonist Watch Facebook pages, it’s crazy that there were no real clues. Law enforcement was literally hoping to get lucky.

    I did find myself feeling sorry for Charlie. I found it interesting that a key piece in Tonya’s demise was that jurors perceived him to be honest, primarily because they perceived him to “lack the creative faculties” to make this crazy story up. You want to just grab him by the shoulders and shake him. You have friends in law enforcement, this is a county that you care about! What are you doing! I also found it interesting and impressive that with his density and her vanity they never told anyone else what they were doing in their free time. After 5 months I would have thought they would have spilled the beans.

    I thought American Fire was a very well-written and well researched narrative that painted a familiar image of rural America. I bet my Dad will keep an eye out for the Eastern Shore on Beach Front Bargain Hunt, seems like you could probably get a good deal on a property Pops!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well hello, Emily! Nice to meet you and I’m so glad you joined us in reading American Fire.

      You make some excellent points. That is very surprising that neither of them bragged about their crimes to others. Tonya seemed secretive by nature but I’m not sure how Charlie managed to keep everything a secret.
      Great point about how they didn’t stick around to watch the actual blaze. You would think that’s where the satisfaction would be. Guess they were more “light and dash” kind of people.

      As to whether Tonya ever loved Charlie, I suspect she loved the fact that he was so devoted to her. That would have appealed to her needy side. But that clearly had a short shelf life.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Hope you’ll join us for March’s book.

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      • “Light and dash” indeed! And I agree, I see her loving the attention and the fact that he was so devoted to her. Thanks again for the book suggestion and for sharing your great insights!

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  5. Hi Michelle!
    Molly here! I am the third member of our family to have read this and I thank you for the recommendation as I don’t know that I would have picked it up otherwise. It was an interesting read to say the least and as George said, kudos to the author for keeping me interested when I knew who the criminals were.

    One of the things I was touched by was the dedication of both the volunteer fire fighters (rightly labeled heroic by you) as well as those in law enforcement who were trying to catch these two. I, too, was surprised that neither of them ever squawked to anyone. As a Dateline aficionado myself, I know a big mouth is often what gets criminals caught. If I were a resident of Accomack County I would have been in the “camp out and try to catch them in the act” group, in part because I am not really on social media, but also because that didn’t seem to work in this instance. Which is sort of interesting since Charlie and Tonya seemed to narrate much of their life on Facebook.

    I did end up feeling sorry for Charlie. I think he was so in need of someone to accept and love him he was willing to set a bunch of fires that made no sense to keep his girlfriend happy. And, given the account of Tonya’s childhood by her sister, she has to be one damaged soul to want to see him do it.

    Liked by 1 person

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