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?