American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

by Monica Hesse

Hardcover, 2017




Liveright (2017), Edition: Illustrated, 288 pages


Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn't lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America - a land half gutted before the fires even began.… (more)


½ (191 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member SamSattler
Interesting but rather dry story of an arsonists-couple that took place in 'west Virginia.

Interesting but rather dry account of an arsonists-couple in West Virginia that managed to start 68 fires before finally be caught. The reader of the audiobook version has such a robotic voice and delivery
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that I sometimes wondered if she were a real person or not. Very factual without a whole lot of character-development in the mix.
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LibraryThing member aarchamb
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this book! It's not overly complex or long but gives the reader a sense of what has happened to the cultural drain on the Eastern Shore, as well as, the story of a series of fires that happened between 2012/2013. Think "The Perfect Storm" only less details, faster read,
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and on land.
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LibraryThing member msf59
Accomack County, is a rural community, on the eastern shore of Virginia. Once, a booming area, it has suffered a sharp economic decline, like scores of rural areas throughout the country.
In November, 2012 abandoned houses and buildings were being set on fire here and would eventually total 80-plus
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fires, for the next five months. Volunteer firefighters and other investigators were working around the clock to find this arsonist, stretching their manpower and the municipal water sources to their limits.
Eventually Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic, along with his fiance, Tonya Bundick, were caught and tried for these crimes. A Bonnie and Clyde of mass arson. A completely twisted love affair.
The author, a Washington Post reporter, was assigned to cover this case, so Hesse followed this case closely, from the onset. It also helps that she is a terrific writer, with a strong narrative flow. One of the best true crime books I have read in awhile.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
There is no mystery surrounding who the serial arsonists are in AMERICAN FIRE. We learn their identities in the first few pages. Instead Monica Hesse has another intention for her intriguing examination of events surrounding over 80 arsons of abandoned structures in rural Virginia over five months
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in 2012-2013. She seeks to explain the motives. In so doing, Hesse explores the impacts of local geography, sociology, economic, and especially the strange behavior of the arsonists. Does she discover an answer? Probably not. But her reliance on extensive interviewing does produce a nuanced portrait of a myriad of contributing factors as well as the community responses to the crimes. The following comment seems telling in this regard: “…inasmuch as there is an answer for these things, (they) involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms . . . intrigue, and America.”

A key element in the story is its setting. Accomack County, Virginia is isolated on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay. A hundred years ago, it was the richest county in America benefiting from prosperous farms, coastal shipping and tourism. All of that is gone today. The economy is in decline, and the terrain is characterized by hundreds of abandoned buildings. Most people with jobs work for low wages in menial and repetitive labor for the chicken industry (Perdue or Tyson). Although clearly not thriving, the people seem to be persevering in a trusting environment where “doors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended.”

Hesse sees Accomack County as a metaphor for the economic decline in rural America in the 21st Century. As one of her main themes, she capitalizes on its inhabitants’ sense of having been left behind by the rest of America. However, the book stands out from most of the other recent examinations of the rise of the alt right in red state America by also considering the strangeness of the crime of arson, how crime waves can influence communities and the how love can drive people to exhibit inexplicably bizarre behaviors.

Characterizing Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick as the “Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore” is a tortured analogy. About all this pair had in common with the famous outlaw duo was a co-dependent love story. Charlie and Tonya were well known in their community but lived on the margins. Their crimes weren’t particularly deadly as all of their targets were abandoned buildings and no one died as a result of the fires they set. Charlie was not very bright and had a penchant for drugs and petty crimes. Strangely, he once served as a volunteer firefighter. His key failing seems to have been a belief that he had found the love of his life in Tonya Bundick. But for some unexplained reason, he was unable to satisfy her sexually. Tonya was a strong-willed person who enjoyed being the center of attention. Undoubtedly, she manipulated her malleable partner to set those buildings alight. However, because she refused to be interviewed by Hesse and never admitted responsibility for the crimes, her motives remain unclear.

The actions by the community and first responders were indeed commendable. The community reacted with compassion and unity. “Nobody was driving drunk, nobody was burgling.” The police did their duty, sleeping in tents, manning checkpoints, mounting surveillance cameras and recruiting profilers. The firefighters slept at their stations and went out on multiple calls each night. As a reflection of community support for their work, they “became intimately acquainted with the baking skills of every sympathetic household on the Eastern Shore.” All told, Hesse calculates that the crimes required 26,378 hours of work by the Virginia State Police and 14,924 hours of overtime over five months.

The final capture of the culprits was exciting, but the legal aftermath was disappointing.
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LibraryThing member arielfl
I love true crime. Why people unravel psychologically and what happens when they do endlessly fascinates me. The author didn't seem to have much of an exciting case to work with. Basically it boils down to two losers who go around setting fires, make that a lot of fires, and who tie their community
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up in knots but none of the fires hurt anyone. For the most part the fires are set in abandoned buildings and camps. With that basic premise the author does a great job of getting into the mind of the two arsonists. She is even able to make them seem mildly sympathetic. I thought she did a great job with showing how two people who alone may be harmless can get together and when combined become criminals. While I don't think Charlie and Tonya rose to the level of Bonnie and Clyde there is no doubt that that they had their small rural Virginia community in a tizzy for the run of their crime spree.

I have read some true crime books where the case was fascinating and the writing was so poor that it made the story boring. In this case I didn't find arson fires where no one was hurt to be particularly compelling but the author's ability to render the details brought the story to life and made it memorable. You could feel what it was like to live in a suffocating small community as your life quickly ran out of options. The fires became an outward expression of the destruction within. The book was thoroughly researched and extremely well written. This may be my favorite true crime book of the year.
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LibraryThing member ecataldi
I literally read this book in one sitting this morning. I woke up, made coffee and did not move from the sofa until it was finished and I only had 20 minutes to get ready for work. This was an entirely engrossing read about arsonists and the county they terrorized. It's about love, hate, economic
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decline, and the American dream. A string of over 60 fires breaks out in a small county, the volunteer fire departments worked over time, citizens mobilized, and people feared for their property. For five and a half months people lived on the edge of their seats. Remarkably nobody was killed or injured in any of the blazes. Wonderfully told, this nonfiction novel will suck you in.
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LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
Fire is fascinating.

Fire is also scary. Whether it’s a forest fire or a house fire it has the capacity to really make a person fearful. I remember standing in my living room watching the fire burn the mountainside across the river. My husband spent the days outside, wearing a mask against the
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smoke, prepping our property in case the embers started flying and caused the fire to jump the river.

Imagine living in a small community that has perhaps seen its best times but continues to struggle along and suddenly houses start burning. Sometimes two and three a night. You don’t know where the next fire is going to be. Is the wind is going to whip up and cause the fire to blow an ember into your yard and start your house on fire? Will I go to sleep only to be awakened by sirens yet again?

Worse, you are one of the volunteer firemen. Do you realize that most of the country gets its fire response from volunteers? Many of those fire companies are struggling as the young people move out of rural areas and the population ages. So again imagine those volunteer fire companies, with men and women who also have to work having to go out night after night to put out one, two or three fires.

This went on for around 5 months. The area lived in a state of tension as neighbors wondered, police wondered and the FBI wondered who could be setting the fires. The area is very rural, the houses were mostly abandoned; they authorities tried to predict where the arsonist would strike but there were just too many possible targets. Until one night they got lucky.

Ms. Hesse writes in a very compelling manner. Her book started with a feature for The Washington Post where she is a feature writer. She instructs her reader in the economic conditions of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, about the various types of psychiatric conditions that could lead to someone becoming and arsonist and on areas of fire science and at no time do you feel overwhelmed or bored.

I am not spilling beans by telling you there are two arsonists – a couple – as it is disclosed in the synopsis. The information is given in the opening of the book so you know from the outset who is committing the arson fires. The male, Charlie is deeply profiled and you really get to know him as the pages turn. The woman, Tonya is more of an enigma. She did not make herself available to Ms. Hesse as broadly as Charlie did so this does leave you with some questions at the end. If you have a person that refuses to answer the questions it is just going to leave some things hanging. Such is the problem with real life.

I read this in one sitting. I did find it utterly fascinating. Now, I do live with a fireman and he’s been answering calls for the entirety of our marriage so I am sure that played a role. Not to mention all of those flames this summer.

As I wrote, fire is fascinating.
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LibraryThing member Susan.Macura
As a former volunteer firefighter, I was intrigued to read a book about an arsonist. I was not disappointed. The first chapter grabbed my attention right away with a particularly insightful look at how volunteer firefighters combat fires in rural areas where the lack of a readily available source
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of water makes even a small fire a challenge. The author obviously spent a great deal of time researching the history of the area, the people and their relationships to each other, as well as the location of each of the many fires set by the arsonists. Yes, arsonists as in plural. In a strange twist, there were two people setting these fires, each with their own reasons for doing so. This was a fascinating look at what people will do for love and what happens when a close-knit community faces tough challenges.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
American Fire is the story of two damaged people--Charlie, a felon and former drug user and Tonya, a single mother--who meet, fall in love, and, for complicated reasons, set fires in abandoned buildings along the eastern Virginia coast. Their story is presented as emblematic of the fall of the
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Eastern Shore, once a prosperous commercial hub and tourist attraction, now a down on its heels rural area of vacant lots and bars. Told also are the stories of the dedicated volunteer firefighters who put out the conflagrations night after night, and the police who solved the crime. This true-crime tale is slight, but well-told and moving. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member flourgirl49
True story about a couple who set fire to more than 80 abandoned buildings in rural Accomack County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The setting is spooky, and the author's writing is atmospheric and engrossing. Recommended.
LibraryThing member bookworm12
The true story of a Virginia couple that set more than 80 buildings on fire. Written by a journalist covering the event, this book is a fast read. I loved the way she told the reader who the criminals were from the very beginning. The big reveal wasn't their identity, but instead, it was a
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reflection on what could drive people to commit those acts and a look at the far-reaching consequences of their decisions. A great piece of nonfiction writing.
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LibraryThing member carolfoisset
Fascinating story. Author does a great job creating the scene, telling the backstory, and building interest in the people that make up this fairly unbelieveable story that is true! Audio is done very well.
LibraryThing member Carol420
I liked this story much more than I thought I would when I picked the book up because it fit a category of a challenge. The story really isn't the fires as much as it's a story of a rural community that has fallen on drastically devastating hard times with irrational behavior thrown into the
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smoldering pot. The author does a fantastic job of presenting a vivid picture of the situation. A visit to Accomack County, Virginia is not necessary in order to picture what life had become there. You didn't have to met Charlie to know who he is. What could be a straightforward story about a series of fires in this rural area suddenly becomes a story about the very souls of the people that lived through it.
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
Fire tells the story of a couple of serial arsonist. It's surprisingly funny, as well as a clear eyed look at the economically devastated area of the country. This story of a depressed and depopulated land could be so incredibly sad, but with this couple, and how they start, and then go on to burn
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down more than 80 deserted homes is oddly funny and interesting .
They certainly aren't masterminds of the arson sciences. It all started when they were just driving around the back roads and he was desperate to please her. She said that if he really loved her, he would burn that old house right there. He runs around to the back of the house, doesn't do anything, and returns to the car saying that he set it, let's go. Problem was, she kept on driving by the house, waiting to see flames ... and there wasn't a flicker. Finally, she get out and sets it herself. And so it goes for about a dozen fires, before he steps it up and lights the rest of them. They would happen to see a house, and she would drop him off, he would light it up, and she would come back to pick him up ... masterminds.
Before the their serious string of fires, there had been a string of houses getting tagged with graffiti. That was their work too. Some people thought that burning down the tagged houses was at least a modest beautification.
The police had all sorts of resources, brought in from far and wide, that they threw at the crime spree. Hidden cameras, computer mapping, whole teams of officers camping out every night watching possible victim homes, and that wasn't what caught our burning couple. The couple are identified to the reader in about the second chapter, and once they are finally captured, on a fluke, he gives up everything, while she only admits to being involved with the one fire the police witnessed and arrested them for. The story could have gone on for some time, as she would have had a trial for each fire. He pleaded guilty and his trial was short and final, with credit for giving so much evidence. Finally she breaks and they both in jail.
I loved this book for every little strangeness that it portrayed. The simplicity of the motives and the methods was laid out before the dismal landscape of hundreds and hundreds of abandon homes. Yet, this was a jewel of a portrayal.
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LibraryThing member villemezbrown
A very readable, middle-of-the-road true crime book. I would've appreciated a map of the region and a plotting of the arson sites to show the scale of the spree visually.
LibraryThing member CherylGrimm
In a town formed primarily with growing forming potatoes and the real Road that sent them around the country. Fires are happening too often at to many abandoned homes or buildings. Accomack County. Virginia
It starts with 3 fires, minutes and miles apart, then adds up to 6 in barely more than 24
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Fascinating read on how to read a fire, its origins, its spreading, its ending. How each fire fighter is given a set amount of oxygen to breathe and how the dispatcher alerts them as that time dwindles down. Sometimes there is TMI in these sort of books, as almost a how-to guide in doing and then getting away with it. Still in all, fascinating reading.
Sixty-seven fires. Not a single injury. All abandoned buildings. This is a story of Charlie and Tonya, he, a heroic dunce of a doper, she, a late bloomer who craved adoration. His meekness was amplified in her presence and she made the best of it.
Once caught, Charlie can tell no lies, but Tonya professes only her innocence. It’s a sad story, as both their lives seem to always have been. You feel for them both, wishing them the best, someday.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
At first, I enjoyed learning about the little appendage of land attached to Maryland, that portion of Virginia connected to the mainland state by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. The farming community was once prosperous, the crabbing and fishing industries prolific but then the depression
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hit, businesses left, young people left, even the railroad left. An aging community and abandoned properties remained. The younger population who stuck it out resorted to working for the chicken processing industry, civil service or self-employment. When the sun goes down, everything closes up.
One couple makes their own entertainment by setting fire to deserted buildings. This goes on almost nightly for six months. This is when the book begins to drag. The police and fire departments are befuddled and completely exhausted. There are no witnesses and expert profilers are stumped. Thanks to a pair of night vision goggles all begins to unravel. What makes them do it? Love? Boredom? Is it psychological? Was it worth it? Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Firefighter techniques and jargon were quite interesting when describing arson and its characteristics.
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LibraryThing member nancyjean19
This was a pretty interesting story, and the writer connected it well to larger themes about rural America, and the idea of doing anything for love -- including that. I think because the stakes of the fires weren't that high, in the end, for anyone, I didn't feel as emotionally invested in the
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story. I found Tonya and Charlie to be engaging as people, and perhaps could have used more time with them and less with the fire crew and investigators, since we know pretty early on who actually started the fires.
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LibraryThing member bookbrig
A super quick and engaging read. It left me wanting to read more stuff about arsonists, while also managing to be a fully satisfying and self-contained story. Would definitely suggest for book club.
LibraryThing member gpangel
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse is a 2017 Liveright publication.

This is an incredible piece of true crime journalism that explores the people and events that transpired in Accomack County. Virginia in 2012/13.

Within a short five- month time frame, an
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astonishing number of arson fires were set, mainly in abandoned buildings and houses. This was not your typical case of pyromania- this turned out to be a 'rampage' crime- committed by a couple who claimed love was at the core of their actions.

This book takes readers through the beginning of the relationship between Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick, when the fires started, the escalation of the crimes and the investigation which led to Charlie’s arrest.

The book’s construction is very much like reading a long form piece in a magazine or newspaper-but so stylishly executed, that despite knowing who the Firestarter is, the reader is compelled to turn pages until they see the culprits are caught and their motives fully examined.

The author’s emotional involvement in the story is very evident. The combination of an economic decline, the once passionate-but chaste- relationship between Charlie and Tonya that turns toxic and unhealthy, and the power plays that pits one against the other makes for a riveting read.

The book is not long, but it packs a real punch. The psychology behind arson is puzzling in the first place- not counting insurance fraud- but this case really is one for the books.

I sensed the author had compassion for all concerned, even Charlie and Tonya- but I couldn’t quite muster the same level of charity for the doers. I sensed both Charlie and Tonya got a real premeditated thrill from it, and I have wondered just how far they may have gone if left unimpeded.

However, there is one thing that really stands out in all this mayhem- The volunteer firefighters who logged in a whopping number of hours trying to control these fires. Amazing! For them, and the entire community affected by the spree, I gained the utmost respect.

Overall, a fascinating and deeply absorbing, and thought- provoking true crime piece!
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LibraryThing member quondame
On the Virginia Eastern Shore, where people are born heres or moved heres scores of abandoned properties were burned down over a few months. The culprits story, so far as it is known, and the investigators story are interleaved after the history and peculiarities of the local are given. Sometimes
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absorbing and sometimes dragging, the narrative makes the obvious points.
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LibraryThing member raschneid
As a narrative, this exceeded expectations—I enjoyed Hesse's accomplished but down-to-earth prose, and felt she did a decent job capturing the feel of rural Virginia without succumbing to simplistic narratives about small-town decay and obsolescence. While the book markets itself as depicting a
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"vanishing land," I don't think Hesse's narrative frames it quite that way.

Any prose work is going to be hard-pressed to capture as surreal a series of crimes as the Eastern Shore arson cases. I thought the story was at its best when depicting the community response, from volunteer firefighter camaraderie to Facebook speculation. Yet I'm not convinced there's any "there there" when it comes to analyzing the motivations of the perpetrators. It's true that the Eastern Shore is an ideal landscape for a would-be arsonist, but the events that led to the crimes feel more-or-less universal.

Perhaps this is its own lesson—if you approach a crime story looking for a metaphor, and find it, you may simply be a very good writer. Hesse dodges the trap, but what's left is just a very weird story.
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Edgar Award (Nominee — 2018)
Agatha Award (Nominee — Non-Fiction — 2017)
Boston Globe Best Book (Nonfiction — 2017)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.6 inches


1631490516 / 9781631490514
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