American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land
Author: Monica Hesse
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Company
Date of Publication: July 11, 2017
Back in the Stone Ages when I was in medical school, MCV used to farm out third year students for a one month primary care experience. I had the fantastic luck of spending the month of August, 1976 at the Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, Virginia. There were four of us third-years there that month as well as a fourth year doing an elective. As my first clinical rotation, this month was a genuine eye-opener. There were no "real" doctors in the hospital from 11 P.M. until the morning, not even in the E.R. The attendings all lived a minute or so away and one general surgeon would sleep in his R.V in the parking lot (no beepers - you just went out and pounded on the door if you needed him). It was a unique and wonderful clinical rotation. The internist I worked with (William Burton, M.D.) had been second in his medical school class at MCV (his wife was #1!). I saw many things for the first time and learned a tremendous amount in one month. I helped manage a lady with acute CHF, saw a Kaposi's sarcoma and even was sent in an ambulance to Norfolk with a variceal bleeder (one I.V. and one unit of blood, just in case she "broke loose"). We were also able to accompany a public health nurse by boat to Tangier Island to do house calls. Just as enlightening as the medical education I received, I learned a lot of the history and lore of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Much like current times, the economy was depressed and the locals were looking for new sources of jobs. The young people were not returning home after college. There was a huge influx of migrant workers every summer. Most people ignored their health care until they were in advanced stages of their disease. So, it is with this backdrop that you can understand that when I heard about Monica Hesse's American Fire, an account of a true story which occurred on the Eastern Shore, I ordered a copy and started reading it the minute it arrived in the mail.
American Fire is, first and foremost, the story of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick. Both of these people are Eastern Shore locals and had a colorful past. Charlie had frequent run-ins with the law and owned an auto body shop. Tonya was a nursing assistant and single mother who had a party-girl reputation. They formed an unlikely couple and then proceeded to become serial arsonists. They burned many of the unoccupied farm buildings as well as several homes and businesses. Over eighty fires in all were started. They managed to elude a massive effort by local and state police as well as F.B.I. and A.T.F. to stop them. The author does a very creditable job of creating non-judgmental character studies of both of these people. One of the problems the police had was defining a motive but Hesse does ferret that out by the end of the book. There are many other fascinating character studies in American Fire, including the volunteer firemen and the police officers involved.
Just as important as the character sketches, though, the author manages to paint a very stark and realistic picture of the Eastern Shore. She traces the history of the area, including it's rich farming traditions and its short-lived era as a vacation destination. She elaborates on the current economic woes which define this area as well as many rural areas in modern America. In some ways, this book could be viewed as a companion to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Both books give a harsh view of a distressed and hopeless slice of America. Hesse's views however are balanced. She recognizes the charms of living in area such as the Eastern Shore as well as the challenges:
"I went to Accomack County and I found endless metaphors for a dying county in a changing landscape. There were endless metaphors that went the opposite way, too: rural life as a fairy tale, better than the rest of the country. The reality is probably somewhere in between. The people who lived in Accomack were happy to live in Accomack. It wasn't small, it was close-knit. It wasn't backward, it was simple. There weren't a hundred things to do every night, but if you went to the one available thing, you were pretty much guaranteed to run into someone you knew. As economies change, as landscapes change, nostalgia is the only good America will never stop producing."
The author also includes an entertaining chapter on infamous "Crime Couples", including Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang, the "Barbie Killers" Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Leopold and Loeb. She describes a shared psychotic disorder, folie a deux (madness of two), which is applicable to these famous cases as well as the Eastern Shore arsonists. There is also a fascinating chapter on the subspecialty of arsonist profiling. Using a computer program and the locations of the crimes, police are able to pinpoint where the arsonists live. In this particular case they narrowed it down to one residential block (which was accurate) but still couldn't identify the culprits even though everyone on the block, including the perpetrators, were interviewed.
Monica Hesse is a feature writer for "The Washington Post" and has written this book and Girl in the Blue Coat, an Edgar winner for Best Young Adult Mystery. She has created a stellar entry in the genre of creative non-fiction with American Fire. I enjoyed it from a nostalgia point of view as well as from the fact that it is a very entertaining and informative read.