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

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


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.

Title:American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
Edition Language:English
Format Type:
Number of Pages:255 pages

    American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Reviews

  • Book of the Month

    Where There's Smoke ...By Judge Elizabeth KieferI have a confession to make: Over the last few years, I have become obsessed with true crime. From Serial to Making a Murderer and The People v. O.J. Si...

  • JanB

    4.5 stars This is fascinating journalism, telling the story of a 2012/2013 crime spree in rural Virginia where arsonists started 80+ fires over a period of a few months. All were set in abandoned buil...

  • Brandice

    As the cover of American Fire states, this book is about love, arson, and life in a vanishing land. The dangerous duo set 67 fires - that's six-Seven! in a 5 month span in Accomack County, Virginia. I...

  • Marika

    True crime lovers will devour this story of how a small town in Virginia was almost decimated by deliberately set fires. 67 fires in just 5 months. 67. American Fire is written with a reporter's eye f...

  • Diane S ?

    3.5 Thoughts soon....

  • Taryn Pierson

    Ever since I inhaled the S-Town podcast in two days, I’ve been looking to recapture that weird, can’t-look-away fascination I felt as I listened to John B. McLemore’s story unfold. American Fire...

  • Marlene England

    An absolutely fascinating story, and Hesse does an excellent job in the telling of it. I was hooked from the first page to the last. ...

  • BAM The Bibliomaniac

    True Crime Commemoration # 30Setting: 2012 Accomack County, VA...

  • Melike

    Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse gives us a well researched and fascinating account of more than 70 fires that took place in Accomack county, Virginia between November 2012 and April 2013. Accoma...

  • Nicole

    I don't know if books like this are my favorite kind of books but I have come to realize that books about small towns, fiction or nonfiction, books that are journalistic endeavors but do so in a way t...