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

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3.79  ·  Rating details ·  12,772 ratings  ·  1,730 reviews
Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn't lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened ...more
Hardcover, 255 pages
Published July 11th 2017 by Liveright
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Jaclyn As an Eastern Shore native, I have seen a lot of the houses, scorched and soggy, on the backroads. I drove by and watched Whispering Pines go up in fl…moreAs an Eastern Shore native, I have seen a lot of the houses, scorched and soggy, on the backroads. I drove by and watched Whispering Pines go up in flames. It's definitely true.(less)

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Carol
Nov 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fifteen or so years prior to the first of the string of 70 Accomack County, Virginia fires that are the subject of American Fire, I was working at a Richmond firm for the summer and one of the partners owned a weekend getaway waterfront home on the Eastern Shore, the lawn of which gracefully sloped down to the water, an inlet to the Chesapeake Bay, west of Route 13. As I recall, 50 or so of us traveled by bus for 3 hours one-way, played croquet on that vast lawn, contemporaneously consuming burg ...more
Diane
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is one of those true crime stories that is so bonkers I couldn't believe it really happened.

But it did happen — you can find the crazy news articles online. However, if you appreciate a good mystery, I recommend avoiding all spoilers and just let the book unfold for you.

The story is about a series of mysterious building fires in Virginia — dozens of arson cases in one rural county. We learn early on who the culprit is, but what we, the readers, don't know is why. I've seen this book called
...more
Book of the Month
Where There's Smoke ...
By Judge Elizabeth Kiefer

I 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. Simpson, it’s become my go-to genre. But the fixation really started more than a decade ago, when I was introduced to a book that remains among my top recommendations to this day: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—a work of reportage and suspense that is truly in a league of its own.

Well, at least it use
...more
Sheri
Oct 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017, nonfiction
"Things [in people] were broken early on" (paraphrased p. 184), and the troubles and stresses of life exacerbate the problem(s). "Maybe some people were affected more than others, in ways nobody ever could have predicted." (p. 181)

For the residents of Accomack County, the arsons happening all around them were a source of speculation and mystery. Who could be burning the properties and why? Neighbors and friends started casting uneasy and wary glances at each other and taking note of suspicious a
...more
Jaline
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: xx2018-completed
Arson is a terrible crime. Not that there is anything great about crime of any sort, but arson is one of the most difficult to obtain evidence for because it pretty much gets burned up. It is also difficult to catch an arsonist because by the time someone sees the fire and law enforcement or firefighting personnel arrive, those who commit the crime are already miles away. Even if the time is only a matter of minutes. This is because, unless an accelerant is used, it takes time for a fire to grow ...more
Beverly
Nov 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Darlene
Aug 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: true-crime
I would rate this book 3.5 stars.

This book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land written by 'Washington Post' reporter, Monica Hesse seemed like a good choice for me. I enjoy reading true crime books and as an added bonus, this one appeared to suggest a causal relationship between the crimes discussed and factors which have broader societal implications. What I actually found upon reading this book was a compelling story.. a crime story which encompassed Accomack County on th
...more
JanB
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 buildings, in a struggling county that had no shortage of abandoned buildings. Some nights there were multiple fires, stretching the volunteer firefighters to the limit.

After a slow start where a few too many people were introduced, we finally get into the details of the crime and the unlikely romance b
...more
Brandice
Jul 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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. In American Fire, the scene is set well and the story is well-told.

I was able to hear Monica Hesse speak about American Fire earlier this week at a local event, which was cool. At the time of the event, I was just over halfway through the book, which I was already thoroughly engaged in. What struck
...more
Ron
Nov 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I wondered. How could love be part of a true story about arson? The answer: it’s not love in a typical sense. Not romance. That’s not meant to deter people from picking this one up, especially those looking for a good nonfiction book to read. The first half is a thrilling hunt for an arsonist amidst night after night of fires on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, despite knowing the person’s identity early in. The second half is the aftermath and trial – still interesting because of some very good w ...more
Britany
Monica Hesse packs her dog (❤) and her bags to live in Accomack County Virginia for what she thought would be a piece for the Washington Post and then turned into this non-fiction modern day Bonnie & Clyde love story gone horribly wrong- with a big dose of flames.

This was very interesting, Charlie Smith and the love of his life-- Tanya Bundick set close to a hundred fires, mostly in abandoned buildings- thankfully no one was hurt. A town had to come together to save their history and most import
...more
Truman32
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Starting early November 2012 ,and going through several months, over 60 fires were purposely set on the rural Eastern Shore area of Virginia. These fires consumed abandoned houses and uninhabited buildings in Accomack County. The region was suffering from hard economic times so there were literally hundreds of deserted buildings –far too many for the police to guard. The volunteer fire departments were stretched to breaking. Stretched tighter than the elastic on your tighty-whities back in 3rd g ...more
♥ Sandi ❣
4 stars

Accomack County was in ruin. The economy was down, few inhabitants, of a cluster of small towns, had much - not much money, not many possessions, and even less hope.

For 5 1/2 months, in 2013, no one could catch an arsonist in Accomack County Virginia. Local police, fire fighters, and investigators worked the case along with a number of outside agencies, like the FBI and State Police. Houses, sheds, garages, and a large abandoned resort were set ablaze - over 80 buildings in all. Most wer
...more
Taryn
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio, 2017-release
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 comes pretty dang close.

The basic story is this: a few years ago, someone started lighting abandoned buildings in Accomack County, Virginia on fire. It’s a rural enough area that the fire departments are all volunteer outfits, staffed by people who have to get up and go to their day jobs after fighting
...more
Claire
Jul 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
American Fire is a highly engaging true crime narrative. It was refreshing to read about a crime that isn't murder, in this much depth. In this book, Hesse does what I love most in investigative journalism, she does just tell the story of what happened, but locates this crime in a place, and a time, which plays such a significant role in our understanding of how and why these things happen. In this way, American Fire is as much a work of social science, as it is of reportage. American Fire is fi ...more
Valerity (Val)
I thought that this sounded like a really good book, and when I finally got a chance to read it I wasn't disappointed. The tension builds and you could feel what it was like for the folks living in that area at the time these fires were going on. Just an awesome read out of an excellent reporting job. You won't believe the strange reasons behind the arsons. If someone had written the book as fiction I doubt I could've accepted the premise, it wouldn't be realistic. But since I knew it was true a ...more
Marika
Mar 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 for details, with eyewitness accounts that makes for a combustible read. It's not why the fires are being set, but who's setting them that makes the story so shocking. For fans of Ann Rule.

I read an advance copy and was not compensated.
Jeanette
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Because the first half of the book was interesting but written in dry- "he arrived and this is what happened etc." form- I was all ready to say it was a straight 3 star.

And then I got to the second half of the book (after the photos in my copy) and I changed my rating.

It's an excellent set of "eyes" to the relationship of a folie a deux (a pair who hold the same connecting delusions and intersects for excitement in a psychological sense of bonding)- one of the best I've read, after that point.

Y
...more
Kelli
May 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio
America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.

I didn’t see this one coming. It had been on my radar for a while as a Hoopla audio, mainly because of its haunting cover, but also because I rarely enjoy fiction via audio and I have a lot of yard work and painting to do. I expected this to help me get through some tedious chores. I did not expect it to be actually what it was: a sad, compelling mystery of sorts that spoke to what has happened in rural America.
...more
Nicole
Jul 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 that there is a narrative, there is a story, there are real people not just abstractions and facts but something else, all of those things are things I love in books and when you have one book that does all that and does it well, its really wonderful. I think it's good journalism, good story telling, ...more
BAM The Bibliomaniac
True Crime Commemoration # 30
Setting: 2012 Accomack County, VA
Ariel
Oct 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: true-crime
I love true crime. Why people unravel psychologically and what happens when they do endlessly fascinates me. The author didn't seem to have much of an exciting case to work with. Basically it boils down to two losers who go around setting fires, make that a lot of fires, and who tie their community up in knots but none of the fires hurt anyone. For the most part the fires are set in abandoned buildings and camps. With that basic premise the author does a great job of getting into the mind of the ...more
Marlene England
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Hank Stuever
Jul 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Here's your next pick when you're craving a nonfiction book that reads like a suspense thriller. My friend and Washington Post colleague Monica Hesse has delivered a fascinating, literary true-crime story with the added intelligence and deep reporting that provide sweep and context, set in that other part of America we keep hearing so much about -- vacant, hollowed out, nostalgic for better days. Monica originally wrote about the baffling rash of arson fires in Accomack County (and the strange l ...more
Judith E
Jun 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The Virginian eastern shore had been hit hard by economic recessions and declining populations through the last couple of decades. It was fertile ground for Tanya Bundick and Charlie Smith's unhealthy relationship to develop and 'simmer'.

Through historical economic and cultural study, American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land gives an explanation on how and why such a bizarre crime could occur in rural America. This is an interesting and well told story.
...more
Heather *Undercover Goth Queen*
DNF pg. 62

I find the subject matter interesting, but the writing style here is dull. One review mentioned that this book had started out an article, and I think it should have stayed that way. The attempts to flesh it out just didn't work for me. The way the author wrote the 911 calls as if this were an actual fiction thriller was awkward and clunky. She tried to round out the people like characters as well, but I could barely keep anyone straight. This whole thing needed another round of editin
...more
Cathrine ☯️
3.5 🔥🔥🔥
I don't usually do well with audio books but this was interesting, well done, and perfect for my morning walks.
Katie
Jun 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, galleys
Thank you to Liveright for the advance copy of this book.

I was really excited to read this after hearing the publisher's pitch at BookExpo's Book Club Speed Dating. I enjoy the occasional true crime book and am especially interested when there seems to be more to the story than the typical [person commits crime, cops are confused, person gets arrested, trial, person reveals motives, person goes to jail] book. I was intrigued by the fact that the jacket blurb reveals who was setting the fires an
...more
Melike
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, botm
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. Accomack county is a rural area that is wrought with poverty and economic decline, but that is not the only reason why the arsonists are burning abandoned buildings down. You get to understand the complicated people at the center of the story through Hesse's masterful writing, after all she lived in Accom ...more
Maureen
Jul 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Probably more like 3.5 stars. The book was well-written, there just seemed like there was more to be told. After realizing this book started as a newspaper article, and was then expanded into a book, the dearth of information made more sense to me. It is worth the read, but I would definitely recommend getting it from your library and not purchasing. A fast read about an interesting case and interesting people- I was just left wanting more.
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Monica Hesse is the national bestselling author of the true crime love story American Fire, and the historical mystery novel Girl in the Blue Coat, which has been translated into a dozen languages and won the 2017 Edgar award in the Young Adult category. She is a feature writer for the Washington Post, where she has been a winner of the Society for Feature Journalism's Narrative Storytelling award ...more

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We're halfway through the year that time forgot! Ahem...I mean, 2020. Believe it or not, it's June. Traditionally, this is when the Goodr...
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“This was not the story of Accomack. This was the story of America. In 1910, back in the peak of the Eastern Shore’s wealth, more than 70 percent of Americans lived in rural counties. It was the norm, it was the standard. Now, rural counties contained only 15 percent of the nation’s population.” 2 likes
“It is the greatest tragedy and the greatest beauty of a relationship: that at some level, the person you are closest to will always be a total friggin' mystery.” 2 likes
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