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

I’m a sucker for true crime and podcasts, so when one of my favorite podcasts, Book Riot’s All the Books, recommended this true crime book, I put it near the top of my TBR list. After finally picking it up when I had a bit of a break before going back to school, I was not disappointed.  American Fire is a true crime story, a love story gone wrong, a story of hard work and dedication by men and women in uniform, and ultimately, a well written piece of work that will put your right into the heart of the fires and leave you wondering how you’ll ever be able to get out.  More than eighty arsons occurred in this small, rural county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, sometimes multiple a night, leaving the volunteer firefighting crew exhausted, and no one was caught for almost six months. When they finally caught their man, it was someone they knew, but the motive wasn’t what anyone would have thought. I would bet money this is turned into a movie within a couple years. It’s a story all most too-good to be true.

Monica Hesse, the author of American Fire, doesn’t just tell the story of the eighty plus arsons happening across the Eastern Shore of Virginia in chronological order, interviewing key witnesses along the way and then finally revealing who the arsonist is. Instead, she puts you into the heart of the arsons with the firefighters on the ground, sweat dripping off their faces, the police running themselves ragged trying to catch the arsonists, and the culprit, Charlie Smith and inside his life. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Charlie, and his fiancee Tonya, were the arsonists, because you get that from Hesse within the first few chapters. Anyway, it doesn’t matter WHO was doing the arsons. The more interesting part of the story is the WHY and the WHAT THE HECK happened during and after the arsons that led to them being caught and prosecuted.  As it all unfolds, you won’t be disappointed.

Hesse’s writing is spectacular. I could feel the heat of the fires. I cared about every character involved. I wanted Charlie to kick his drug addiction and the police to catch him and Tonya to get the attention she craved and the Arson Hunters to complete their mission. All of the interwoven stories of this narrative are treated with delicacy and care by Hesse, and clearly she did her work. She lived in the area for months doing this investigation and writing and in total spent two years in the world of the arsons.  She perfectly captured the feel of small town, rural America, oft-forgotten and neglected but still rolling on. Is it dying out, or is it evolving? Were the arsons symbolic of something bigger than Charlie and Tonya ever could have imagined? Those are all questions that Hesse grapples with as she explores these arsons, the investigation into them, the subsequent trials, and ultimately, how it shaped a county that was nearly burnt to the ground.

Check out this interview with Hesse at Politics and Prose in DC!


One response to “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land”

  1. whatsnonfiction Avatar

    Great review! I loved this book too.


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