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

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

Monica Hesse. Liveright, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-63149-051-4

Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat) leads readers on an extended tour of a bizarre five-month crime spree in rural Accomack County, Va.: a series of over 80 arsons, of predominantly abandoned buildings, committed by a local couple. It began one day in November 2012 with four fires in 24 hours and carried on for five months. As hysteria mounted, police camped out in tents near potential targets and a group of vigilantes set up their own operation. At the center of this narrative is the extremely compelling couple: Charlie Smith, a 38-year-old recovering drug addict, and Tonya Bundick, a 40-year-old partier described as the “queen” of the local nightclub, Shuckers. Hesse traces their romance from charming Facebook exchanges and plans of a Guns N’ Roses themed wedding to passing notes in the prison yard after their arrest. Their love totally imploded under the pressure of their prosecution. Hesse offers sociological insight into a small town where “doors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended” despite its downward economic trajectory. There is something metaphorical, she notes, about a rural county suffering through a recession being literally burned to the ground. The metaphor becomes belabored by the time Hesse shoehorns in a comparison between small-town America and the aforementioned Shuckers, but otherwise this is a page-turning story of love gone off the rails. [em](July) [/em]