When this string of fires began, they defendants were in love. By the time they finished, they weren’t.
In 2012 and 2013, a quiet, rural county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia suddenly found itself ablaze, with seventy-plus fires lit over an approximately ten month period. American Fire is the story of those tasked with putting out the fires, those who finally found the culprits, and those whose love drove them to terrorize their neighbors with a literal, extended trial by fire.
Narrative nonfiction done well
I first noticed American Fire when it was a Book of the Month pick a few months ago. It wasn’t one that I wanted to choose that month since I like to spend money on books I know will be good and narrative nonfiction can be hit or miss for me. I knew, however, this was one I’d follow up and get from the library.
I was not disappointed in my choice to pick this one up and, having read it, would consider it worthy of a BOTM credit. Hesse writes for The Washington Post and her journalism background clearly informed her research and writing. She was meticulous in her notes and I appreciated her acknowledgements for the members of Accomack County for their help at the end of the book. She portrays Accomack honestly but never strays into “hokey,” which would have been easy to do.
Hesse highlights the “human interest” in the book well—she features many of the firefighters and law enforcement tasked with finding the arsonists—you could almost see many of them tired, covered in soot, but still out there every night. Despite the fact that at least 75% of the characters in the book are male—a function of the gender makeup of the average fire and police stations—I was able to keep the characters straight. (I say this without irony—when all the characters are white males, there is at least a 90% chance I can’t follow the book and wind up putting it down. See e.g., Wolf Hall.) I care about these (mostly) men and women. She also humanizes the male defendant, Charlie. To the extent one can sympathetically depict an arsonist, Hesse has done this well. Her portrayal of the female half of the duo, Tonya, is a bit more clinical, though this almost certainly comes from Tonya’s refusal to be interviewed by Hesse. Hesse acknowledges that this makes sense—Tonya is still appealing her cases and so it wasn’t in her interest to be interviewed. You get the sense, however, that Tonya was the driving force in the fires, despite her protestations in her appeals.
Though she was somewhat limited by Tonya’s reticence to talk to her, because Charlie did cooperate with being interviewed—both with formal law enforcement interviews and with Hesse—American Fire is juicy in a way that you usually don’t get with a narrative nonfiction like this. Charlie and Tonya were a real couple, with real struggles, who chose to relieve tension in their relationship by starting fires several times a week. It’s the plot of an episode of Jerry Springer or Maury, and yet Hesse never gets tabloidish—American Fire is juicy enough to be scandalous and interesting yet still straightforward and literary in tone and style. It was an interesting balance and Hesse mostly struck it well.
Accomack County and Hillbilly Elegy
Interestingly, the book reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy in some ways. American Fire was in no way a political screed, nor did Hesse stray into politics even indirectly. The commonalities instead came from the people—like many of the people Vance discusses, the people of Accomack County are almost entirely blue-collar, many living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s a quiet place, but (having been nearby) a beautiful one, with deep roots for those who stay—though that number is dwindling. Indeed, the slow flight from the county is what made it so prime for the crime of arson—as Hesse notes, abandoned or empty buildings outnumbered actual people. Once the pattern was (quickly) discovered, the sheer number of empty buildings made it nearly impossible to stake out the likely targets since the targets so greatly outnumbered law enforcement, even with reinforcements called in.
It’s not a perfect comparison—Accomack County went 55% to Trump and 43% to Clinton while many of the counties and areas featured in Vance’s screed went more solidly for Trump. Yet, you get the sense that these are many of the people Vance wrote about. The people Hesse interviewed were largely proud of being from Accomack County—with the “Born Heres” distinguished from the “Come Heres.” The fire department is run by volunteers, but it never lacked for staff during the fires—Accomack County will care for its own.
Also by Monica Hesse….
It was not until literally the last page that I realized Hesse wrote another book I’d read and enjoyed last year—The Girl in the Blue Coat. In my defense, The Girl in the Blue Coat is a YA mystery set in Holland during the Nazi occupation, so the tone and audience were so wildly different that I wasn’t clued into the common author. I don’t know that I’d say if you enjoyed American Fire that you should read The Girl in the Blue Coat since their very different genres won’t automatically appeal to the same audience; however, if you enjoy YA and/or WWII Fiction, I do think The Girl in the Blue Coat is also worth your time.
Published July 11, 2017 by Liveright (@liverightpublishing)
Author: Monica Hesse
Date read: October 17, 2017
Rating: 4 stars