RHC 2018: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book of social science.

Alternate: Read a book of true crime.

Arson is an odd crime, and American Fire is an odd story. In 2013, a couple were convicted of setting over seventy fires in rural Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. For the most part, the fires were set in abandoned structures, of which the former richest rural county in the state had plenty. These weren’t crimes intended to hurt anyone (at one scene, the arsonists had been careful to let chickens out before starting a fire).

As property crimes go, arson’s simplicity is positively elegant. It’s not an easy crime to solve, particularly when the criminals are exercising as much spontaneous nuttiness as Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick apparently exhibited. In this case, the hunt for the arson spree culprit(s) lasted about six months, spawning Facebook vigilante groups complete with merch to sell, conspiracy theories, and an oppressive public obsession with where the next blaze would be lit.

Hesse describes the hunt from the perspective of the firefighters, police officers, local residents, and the perpetrators. Along the way, she paints a detailed picture of Accomack County, as all of its former landmarks go up in flames. The metaphor of an empty rural American county full of abandoned buildings getting set on fire practically writes itself, though the marketing hits this point a little harder than the text itself does. If anything, the communities Hesse interviews feel far more functional than the typical declining-small-town-America narrative. However, particularly when it comes to the ruins of the Whispering Pines resort (which inevitably burns down), the echoes of the county’s wealthier past are painfully present. She also writes with a lot of humanity and style:

To talk about arson is to talk about buildings burning down. To talk about the term “pyromania” is really to talk about the unfathomable mysteries of the human brain and the human heart: Why do we do things? Why do we want things? What moves us, and stirs us, and why are some people moved by the things that the rest of us find inexplicable or abhorrent? … there’s a piece of the puzzle that remains inexplicable:

Some people light things on fire because they feel like they have to. (49)

I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy, but I don’t think this is exactly the same genre. I know Hillbilly Elegy’s writing preceded the 2016 election, but it’s hard to remember that under the deluge of “let’s understand Trump voters” think pieces that clogged up all my social media afterwards. This book didn’t feel like that to me. It did feel well-researched and like the writer had done her best to represent her subject completely and fairly. Overall, this was a fast, absorbing read that I’d recommend.

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