American Fire

AMERICAN FIRE

Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Monica Hesse

The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

“One of the year’s best and most unusual true-crime books” (Christian Science Monitor), 

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The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

“One of the year’s best and most unusual true-crime books” (Christian Science Monitor), American Fire brings to vivid life the reeling county of Accomack. “Ace reporter” (Entertainment Weekly) Monica Hesse spent years investigating the story, emerging with breathtaking portraits of the arsonists—troubled addict Charlie Smith and his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick. Tracing the shift in their relationship from true love to crime spree, Hesse also conjures the once-thriving coastal community, decimated by a punishing economy and increasingly suspicious of their neighbors as the culprits remained at large. Weaving the story into the history of arson in the United States, the critically acclaimed American Fire re-creates the anguished nights this quiet county lit up in flames, evoking a microcosm of rural America—a land half-gutted before the fires began.

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  • Liveright
  • Paperback
  • May 2018
  • 272 Pages
  • 9781631494512

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$15.95

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About Monica Hesse

Monica HesseMonica Hesse is a feature writer for the Washington Post. Winner of the Edgar Award and a finalist for a Livingston and James Beard Award, she is also the author of Girl in the Blue Coat. She lives in Washington, DC.

Author Website

Praise

One of NPR’s Best Books of 2017
New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

“A brisk, captivating and expertly crafted reconstruction of a community living through a time of fear. . . . Masterful.”Washington Post

American Fire is an excellent summer vacation companion. It has all the elements of a lively crime procedural: courtroom drama, forensic trivia, toothsome gossip, vexed sex. It also happens to be a very good portrait of a region in economic decline. . . . As with ‘S-Town’ and the best episodes of ‘This American Life,’ Hesse has managed to wring tension and excitement out of a story with a known ending.”Jennifer Senior (New York Times)

“The propulsive pleasure of American Fire rests in author Monica Hesse’s decision not to force a thing. The book has the brisk diligence of big-city journalism (Hesse writes for the Washington Post) and the languid chattiness of the small town where she lived while researching it. . . . Hesse gathers the pieces but leaves connections to the reader. When they snap together, the feeling is a bit like gazing upon a blaze you’ve just lit.”Karl Vick (Time)