The fires were big news, for a while. Accomack County, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, spent late 2012 and early 2013 under siege, enduring 86 arsons in five months’ time, most of them set in abandoned buildings. No one died. For a while, investigators wondered if they had a criminal mastermind on their hands, but when the firebugs were finally caught, they turned out to be two locals, a pretty ordinary couple in a complicated kind of love, a love that found extraordinary expression in late-night flames.
He confessed; she protested her innocence, not convincingly; both of them went to prison. In March 2013, Monica Hesse, a writer for The Washington Post and a novelist (“Girl in the Blue Coat”), traveled to Accomack County to cover the trials of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick. The lengthy feature story that resulted, “Love and Fire,” has now been expanded into “American Fire,” a brisk, captivating and expertly crafted reconstruction of a community living through a time of fear, confusion and danger.
What Hesse found at the end of her journey to the far side of the Chesapeake Bay was Trump country, though no one called it that then. Rural and mostly white, Accomack County was and is a close-knit community battered by a long economic decline. Following the 2016 election, reporters have fanned out to such places, but aside from a couple of pages of commentary about mass media’s neglect of rural America and a few stray observations about small-town mores and shopping habits, Hesse isn’t writing political parajournalism.
Rather, her book is grounded on three core convictions. First: Arson, as crimes go, is really, really interesting. Second: A wave of unsolved crimes can have unexpected effects on the fabric of a community, not all of them negative. Finally, and most important to Hesse: Love is strange.
How strange? Boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl on bended knee at the local roadhouse, boy and girl hit hard times, boy loses the ability to perform in bed, boy and girl drive a gold minivan around with their eyes peeled for unused, decaying buildings — of which the Eastern Shore has thousands, just sitting there, ready-made symbols of decline, oddly beautiful in their dereliction and oddly beautiful when set aflame.
Hesse spends a chapter comparing Charlie and Tonya to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and she makes the analogy work, though you may need to squint a little. Tonya, a lot like Bonnie, was a showoff with something to prove and a streak of poetry in her soul. Charlie, like Clyde, was . . . well, okay, Charlie wasn’t much like Clyde. Charlie was a high school dropout, a onetime volunteer fireman, a guy who thought he’d found the love of his life, but who found himself a world of trouble instead. Bruce Springsteen would know what to do with this.
By page 11, we know whodunit. And we know what been done. The trick of “American Fire,” handled by Hesse with wonderfully casual assurance, is that she doesn’t show us her firestarters starting any fires, not until very near the end of the book. Rather, she shows us Charlie and Tonya living the noncriminal half of their lives, the normal part, and she makes us care. Charlie tries to make ends meet doing auto-body work; Tonya opens a small clothing boutique in the office of Charlie’s shop. In one of the book’s best moments, Charlie and Tonya are sharing a Christmas Day meal at the Royal Farms gas station when they’re joined by a pair of police officers. They all know each other; everything in this book is relentlessly local. “Y’all must be busy, with all the fires going on,” says Charlie to the cops. It’s a banal scene, but given what we know and what we suspect by that point of the book, it’s also a small, delicious thrill.
One of the gladdest — and, in other ways, saddest — aspects of the book is the way the fires bring the people of Accomack together. Hesse mutes the poisonous spread of suspicion that invariably occurs in such situations (she says that “people turned on their friends and neighbors,” but never really follows up), but she does a masterful job of portraying a community finding its best self. “Nobody was driving drunk, nobody was burgling,” she writes. “The sense of community outrage and pride got larger, and the firefighters became intimately acquainted with the baking skills of every sympathetic household on the Eastern Shore.” Later in the book, Hesse tallies the human effort involved in fighting and investigating the fires set by Charlie and Tonya: 41,302 hours, 14,924 of them overtime, by the Virginia State Police alone. At one fire station, volunteers play Call of Duty day and night until they’re interrupted by yet another alarm — and off they go, uncomplaining.
Arson is an offense tailor-made for rural places full of old buildings, and Hesse also delivers a great book about fire. In many places, “American Fire” reminded me of Sebastian Junger’s essays on the subject, or even of Norman MacLean’s classic “Young Men and Fire.” Hesse is interested in the way fire moves, the way it’s set and the way it’s fought, but most of all in the power it has over the mind: Why do we like to see things burn? By the time the culprits are caught, a squadron of arsonist profilers has descended on Accomack County, and their insights form some of the most interesting portions of the narrative.
Hesse’s story is built not out of archives but from interviews, dozens of them: Just about everyone in town has talked to her, and the reader comes to understand that the author’s greatest strength is her ability to take people at face value, whatever she thinks of them or what they’ve done. Only Tonya Bundick refused to do more than a cursory interview, but still Hesse bends over backward to make her a sympathetic figure (still, by the end of the story, I was convinced that not only was Bundick guilty, but that she was in the grip of some kind of advanced psychosis).
The roads of Accomack County feel well-traveled; the houses feel lived-in; all of the people, by the time the book closes, feel awfully familiar. There are echoes here of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” but for all that book’s majesty and daring, something clinical and superior hovers over its prose; Hesse, using a similar reporting style, is not so ambitious or comprehensive. In the end, however, she may tell a much more human story.
Scott W. Berg’s books include “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.
On Thursday, July 13, at 7 p.m., Monica Hesse will be in conversation with fellow Washington Post reporter Dan Zak at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Monica Hesse
Liveright. 255 pp. $26.95