BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, July 2017
Abandoned buildings were going up in flames in sleepy Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in late 2012 and early 2013. More than 60, one after the other, lighting up the skies in the middle of the night. Neighbors grew suspicious, vigilante groups were formed, and police checkpoints dotted lonely country roads.
In the end, a bizarre story emerged once police captured the culprits, who turned out to be engaged lovers Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick. The story of the hunt for these Bonnie-and-Clyde arsonists, their capture and trials is mesmerizing, as told by Washington Post feature writer Monica Hesse in American Fire. The chase involved 26,378 hours of work by the Virginia State Police and 14,924 hours of overtime for nearly five months. Teams of men spent nights in tents beside potential targets, hoping to catch the fire starter red-handed.
Hesse happened upon this story when she went looking for an assignment that would simply get her “out of the office for a day.” She got more than she bargained for, spending the next two years researching, writing and trying to understand the why behind the strange crime spree.
She ended up moving to the area for a while, riding on fire trucks, visiting Smith and Bundick in jail, getting to know residents at church potluck suppers and digging deep into the area’s past, present and future, even reading a book about the chicken industry “that is more interesting than any book about chicken farming has a right to be.”
So why did Smith and Bundick commit these crimes? “The answer,” Hesse writes, “inasmuch as there is an answer for these things, involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms . . . intrigue, and America.” What more is there to say? American Fire is deftly written and endlessly surprising.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Monica Hesse about American Fire.