Book Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
Published July 2017
Someone is setting dozens of fires in this true-crime account.
Over the course of a few months, an arsonist couple in Accomack County in Virginia set fire to over 70 structures.
Included in the destruction: the famed but dilapidated hotel, The Whispering Pines. Here’s drone footage of the aftermath. You can see that it was already pretty run down before the fire.
Most, but not all, places were abandoned. Somehow, there were no fatalities. But the arsons weren’t victimless crimes.
Firefighters responded at all hours for months with hardly any reprieve and oftentimes not enough water. It cost tens of thousands in dollars and resources.
At the center was one couple. For months, authorities were searching for a brilliant, fiery mastermind. Turns out, it was just a woman with a chip on her shoulder and a man with something to prove.
A key detail in play in this story is the dying small town life. Tonya Bundick and Charlie Smith, the arsonists of American Fire, lived in Accomack County. Once a prosperous place, people had been moving away for years, abandoning homes, barns, and other structures.
Having enough material to burn wasn’t a problem.
“As for running out of abandoned buildings?” (Jim Eichelberger, the mayor of Parksley) says. “Naw. They could never run out of abandoned buildings here.” – Washington Post, “Love and Fire,” Monica Hesse
This can be controversial, but there are challenges to living in small-town America, as explored the Washington Post series, “Unnatural Causes: Sick and Dying in Small-Town America.”
First, there’s the challenge of everything in small-town life being, well, smaller. Access to medical care, qualified teachers, technology, therapists, and job opportunities is not as abundant as you might find in cities.
Night life is almost nonexistent. Stores close and people go home. In fact, a main reason the fires went undetected for so long in American Fire was that the stretch of road where many of them occurred was mostly abandoned at night.
As the Washington Post series points out, some things can be bigger in small towns. Death rates among female caucasians, poverty, obesity, smoking, drug use; the numbers are startling. Here are some charts.
The article is the first to point out that statistics are slippery. There are also lots of people, myself included, who can talk about the advantages to small-town life. The beautiful countrysides and true sense of community are a balm to a harried soul.
With few outlets for their stresses, people in small towns sometimes turn to unhealthy vices. For some, it’s alcohol or opioids. For Tonya Bundick and/or Charlie Smith, it was arson.
Did the small town light dozens of matches? No. People did. The setting isn’t to blame. But it does have a prominent place in this narrative.
American Fire is not the sexiest or most salacious of true crime books, but it does sizzle.
(Get it? Sizzle? Ehhhhh?)