Virginia Burning

Book review: American Fire, by Monica Hesse

In the American countryside, during five months from 2012 to 2013, a terrified county nearly went up in flames.

The place was Accomack County, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, within the East Coast’s picturesque Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) region.

“The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a hangnail, a hinky peninsula separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay and a few hundred years of cultural isolation. It is long and narrow, stretching only fourteen miles at its widest spot but covering hundreds of square miles altogether. The northern border is Maryland at a gas station called Dixieland, which sells Confederate flags and tchotchkes and overstuffed hoagies, and marks the entrance to Accomack with a big sign reading ‘The South Starts Here.'”

What an evocative, fitting descriptor of a place. Atmosphere, consider yourself set.

Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse lays out what happened in those frantic months, the reaction of the insular small town inhabitants, the pressure on fire fighters and law enforcement, and as much as can be gleaned about the motivations of the arsonists responsible for the string of burnings.

Those arsonists aren’t a mystery; from the beginning they’re revealed to be troubled-but-striving body shop worker Charlie Smith and his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick, a single mother who seems to be thriving but is saddled with a murky past. Their story is that of a modern Bonnie and Clyde, and like that notorious pair, economic and social conditions of their particular American era play a large role in shaping their decisions and crimes.

The reaction to the fires and attempts to solve them felt like a familiar small-town mystery trope, where the cops know the criminals, having grown up together. Residents of the region are divided in Born Here, Came Here, Been Here. And it can’t be ignored that troubles facing both the country and the Eastern Shore contributed to the pressure buildup that exploded in the form of arson.

“By November 12, 2012, the same thing had happened on the Eastern Shore that had happened to rural communities all across the country: the shift of family farms to corporate ones. The closing of small businesses and the arrival of big-box stores, which brought much-needed convenience but also left main streets emptying. In the 1910 census, the Eastern Shore population had been fifty-two thousand; in the 2010 census, the population was forty-four thousand, a nearly 20 percent decline.”

Applying thorough journalistic technique, Hesse covers all the peripheral bases important to the story and case. Including a history of arson and pyromania: in case you didn’t know, even Freud threw in his two cents on the act, suggesting “…as he was prone to do, that people who set fires did so for reasons related to phalluses. Flames themselves were reminiscent in shape and movement to penises, Freud argued, and this attraction to them could represent homosexual impulses in men and heterosexual in women.” 

And, naturally, those attracted to the firefighting profession are there because urinating on a fire to put it out represents a sexual act. Of course. Is it connected to our case? It is a love story after all. I won’t give anything away, and Hesse also allows the facts to speak for themselves, and the reader to draw their own conclusions from the extensive research she provides.

But it goes to show how unsure we’ve been, and still may be, about the nature of certain crimes and what prompts them, why one criminal activity appeals over another. In the Accomack fires, only abandoned buildings and properties are targeted; insurance fraud, murder, theft, or trying to conceal evidence of other crimes can be ruled out.

The aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde comparison is also detailed, plus other criminal couples in love. The love story is an important element: although not conventionally romantic, it’s still a relationship tale we’ve heard before. It’s uniquely twisted and complicated like any love affair can be, but each twist and turn reveals more of what brought the couple to do what they did, which was burn down nearly 70 abandoned houses and buildings, causing unquantifiable stress, worry and costs to the county and its residents.

But there’s an ever-present element of humanity. These two were far from monsters, unlike the other folie á deux couples mentioned in the book. Once Charlie ushered some chickens away from a farm about to be burned, saving them. The arsons never resulted in casualties. I was left a little disappointed, ultimately, that we never heard from Charlie or Tonya themselves, in their own words for their own defense, outside of what appeared in police interviews and trials. But it’s one small disappointment in what’s otherwise an excellent, compelling work of narrative nonfiction.

Hesse has a clear, organized and elegant writing style. She sets the scenes in this small town brilliantly: we know places like this, and it shows what the figures were up against. Take this description, Shuckers being the bar where Charlie met Tonya:

“One of the bar’s frequent attendees…described the place as ‘sort of like Studio 54,’ if the famous New York nightclub was located in rural Virginia, with a parking lot full of pickup trucks and a clientele that occasionally broke out in brawls. (Another Shuckers patron noted that he mostly tried to stay away because of the fights. But that if he was in the mood to see a fight, as one was from time to time, then Shuckers was the perfect place to go.”

Quoting a 1925 poem about retreating to the countryside of the Eastern Shore, Hesse writes, “The imagery was beautiful, it was wistful, it was evocative, it was eerie. But what did it mean in real life? What did it mean in the modern world? What things were worth holding on to and what things had to be relinquished? America fretted about its rural parts, and the arsons were an ideal criminal metaphor for 2012.”

For what year of the last several would arsons in rural America not be an ideal metaphor? Since the fires, rural America has risen up with its anger and frustrations, no longer keeping problems like the ones described here, or the opiate epidemics, or the factory closings, or so many others, contained within their communities.

“Rural America was a theoretical place that took up a large, romantic space in the American imagination. The people who lived there had cultivated the nation. They had fed the nation and nurtured its soul.”

In recent years, rural America’s stories have made compelling reading, especially as we struggle to figure out exactly what’s going on in rural America to cause a political shift like we’ve witnessed. This is another story explaining something we as a nation are going to keep struggling with. Although Hesse mostly observes without opinion or instruction, it’s a vital, vibrant and wonderfully readable work of reportage.

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

published July 11, 2017 by Liveright (W.W. Norton)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository. It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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