Book Review – American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

American Fire
Monica Hesse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Between November 2012 and April 2013, someone began burning down the rural community of Accomack County, Virginia. On the strip of land called the Eastern Shore, nearly every night, more than eighty-six random fires were set to abandoned buildings, garages, and cars. Firefighters were exhausted and investigators were baffled. Who was responsible? It turned out to be former volunteer firefighter Charlie Smith and his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick. Police finally caught Smith in the act. He immediately confessed and claimed he did it for love, all at Bundick’s direction.

I haven’t spoiled anything here because the story behind this true crime mystery is how Smith and Bundick’s relationship went from love to arson and how law enforcement and the community were fooled. Hesse first wrote an investigative article for The Washington Post, but felt there was a bigger story. In American Fire, she chronicles the lovers’ relationship and how it changed. In addition, she describes a once-prosperous area in the early 1900s, when railroad companies made it possible to transport farmers’ produce. Once trucking replaced railroads, Accomack County suffered, but the people who stayed developed a tough resilience.

Hesse describes those who remained, people whose families had lived for generations on the shore. Now, in modern Accomack County, everyone knows everyone and whether they’re a “Born Here,” a “Come Here,” or a “Been Here.” Not surprisingly, firefighters also go way back, joining as apprentices to their fathers or older relatives. As they fought Smith and Bundick’s fires, their camaraderie kept them going, bolstered by the community who regularly stocked their makeshift firehouse kitchens.

The author includes plenty of information about the investigation, who was involved and an interesting group of profilers. As with other good true crime stories, readers get to know the personalities in the community and those behind the sheriff, state police, fire chiefs, fire marshals, firefighters, and other specialists. I also enjoyed learning about the community’s sometimes wild speculations and its self-appointed investigators.

Hesse takes you through the arrests and trials and I liked following the initial interrogations and courtroom testimonies. The whole story sparked my interest (get it?) and made me want to look up all the news after I finished. She also includes some pictures at the end, which I always appreciate because I like to see the faces behind the names.

I also liked that this was not a violent true crime story. No one was hurt and no one’s homes were destroyed. Just old structures. I recommend American Fire to readers who like investigative stories and psychological studies.

Thanks for visiting—come back soon!

25 thoughts on “Book Review – American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

  1. That’s a part of Virginia history that I didn’t know about! And to think that I don’t live that far from the Eastern Shore! I don’t usually read nonfiction or true crime – don’t know why it hasn’t really appealed to me yet, but I’ve stopped trying to force it – but this sounds really interesting to learn more about. Thanks for this review!

    1. Oh that’s so interesting! I’ve been to the Maryland Eastern Shore but not the Virginia part. It looks beautifully peaceful there, even if they’ve fallen on hard times. Thanks so much for the visit, Leelynn!

    1. Yes, In Cold Blood is the gold standard and the first of the nonfiction novel. I think many of the books that came after that used his format as a model. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Oh that’s so great, Jill. As soon as I finished the book, I fired up Google maps and took a walking tour through the streets. Looks so nice and peaceful. Thanks for the visit 🙂

  2. Wow – my interest is sparked too! What a strange thing; looking forward to finding out what went on with these two. I’ve added this title to my “first” list, or “reading first” list. I am retiring in October and doing a beach r and r holiday for most of November and December, and I will be reading good books, walking, swimming and wearing out a lounge chair. No cold subarctic winter! 🙂

  3. I read years ago that the chief of fire dept was the very arsonist starting the fires in California. Here in SA the chief of traffic was caught speeding unbelievably and dangerously fast. It’s a strange phenomenon-thinks priests and choir boys. Your review makes the book sound very interesting indeed Barbara thanks for it.

    1. Thank you, Tim! I thought it was very good. I run the mystery book club at my library job and we’re going to discuss it on Wednesday. I appreciate the visit 🙂

    1. Hi Noelle – well they could never prove that she started any of the fires, although he said she did, then took over because she almost got caught. There was definitely a weird dynamic between them. I don’t want to reveal too much in case anyone wants to read. And yes, I was glad there was not violence in this book. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

      1. I looked this up – what a pair. And they weren’t given the same sentences. THe reason the guy did it for the woman was that he couldn’t perform in bed, or so it says. Weird.

      2. Yes, it was a really bizarre relationship. I looked up her FB page where she sold women’s clothes. Many of the pictures were dark and blurry – weird…

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