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American Fire - Monica Hesse
An absolutely riveting account of a string of arsons that unnerved the communities of Accomack county Virginia, overwhelming their volunteer fire departments and baffling the authorities. The search for the culprits took the small towns on a long,frustrating journey and then after almost 6 months local residents, Charlie and Tonya, were caught lighting the 62nd fire. The communities were shocked and angry as they grappled with the knowledge that two of "their own" had caused so much damage and disruption. Was it thrill seeking, revenge or something else that motivated Charlie and Tonya? The motive(s) turned out to be totally unexpected.
Having previously covered the arsons for the Washington Post, Hesse returned to Accomack county to follow Charlie and Tonya's criminal trials. What she expected to be a few weeks stay turned into months as she gained the trust of community members and authorities and widened her investigation. What she uncovered over the course of her two year stay resulted in this mesmerizing account of personal dissappointments and psychological manipulation. With an eye for detail Hesse not only explores Charlie and Tonya's background but also the culture, institutions and physical landscape of the communities. Much more than a timeline of events,Hesse has created a vivid sense of place and a page-turning account of Charlie and Tonya’s arson spree and how it affected the tight knit communities suffering economic decline.
American Fire is a fascinating story!— From Sharon's Picks
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.
The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie's confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn't lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other's inspiration and escape...until they weren't.
Though it's hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it's been drained of its industry--agriculture--as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America--a land half gutted before the fires even began.