Romance lies at the heart of this nonfiction, true-crime story. AMERICAN FIRE is a gripping tale of serial arson, as well as a smart police procedural and courtroom drama—all of it the fallout of crazy-stupid love. As if that weren’t enough, Monica Hesse has transformed her narrative into a poignant commentary on the places and people left behind in the post-industrial age.
The first fire is nothing unusual. It starts at night, on November 12, 2012, in an old abandoned house. Three hours later, a second fire erupts … and a third after that. Okay, the exhausted firefighters tell themselves: three fires in a single night is strange, but it could happen. But the next night, three more fires break out … another, the night after that … and, again, the night after that. Local fire teams “would be called out eighty-six times total over the next five months.”
It all takes place in Accomack County, Virginia, a sliver of land jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay. Once a fertile and prosperous farming region, by the 1930s Accomack had begun its “fall from prosperity.” By 2012, the county was left with thousands (truly thousands) of abandoned buildings—along country roads, tucked deep into woods and isolated marshlands—easy prey for anyone bent on arson.
We’re introduced early on to Charlie, a shy misfit, and Tonya, a popular town beauty. The two have fallen in love—and they are the arsonists, hiding in plain sight, well-known and well-liked by everyone. Yet as with many love affairs, when put to the test, it’s not love that rises to the surface but grievances and irritations. Love’s hold is weakened. And so it happened to Charlie and Tonya: their “epic love story,” as Charlie liked to call it, took a bad turn and became “a mess.”
Even though we’re in on the whodunit from the beginning, American Fire is still a page-turner—a tribute to Hesse’s writing. She draws us into the intimate circle of firefighters and lawmen and elicits our sympathy. We’re with them when they fight the fires and when they devise strategies to catch the culprits. We’re with them in their frustration, too—because by April, they’re no further along in cracking the case than they were in November. How, we worry, are they ever going to solve this thing?
Hesse is also out to make a larger point, using arson as a metaphor—Accomack was burned out long before it was burned up. She titles her book “American Fire” because it’s a story that might have taken place in any part of the country outpaced by change. It could have happened in Iowa, southern Ohio, or eastern Oregon—anywhere people have to move out to move on, and where, like Accomack, there was “so much emptiness, so many places for people to sneak around undetected.”
Hesse has added some unnecessary filler, Bonnie and Clyde’s story, for one, and some historical information on arson for another: interesting, but neither chapter furthers the narrative. Also, motive is sketchy, weak at best, Yet it’s hardly fair to lay that fault at Hesse’s feet: despite several court cases, the underlying reasons that would send a couple on a wild, months-long arson spree, is never completely understood. At the end, all of us—readers, author, lawyers, and detectives—remain puzzled.
But that shouldn’t stop you from picking up American Fire. It’s a terrific read; a riveting crime and detective story, a love story, and a fascinating examination of parts of our country we’ve turned our backs on. Recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.