7 min read ⌚
Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
Judging by the subtitle, you may think that “American Fire” by Monica Hesse attempts to cover just too much ground.
The funny thing is – it actually does.
Because the story it reports is, quite easily, one of the strangest love stories you will ever have the opportunity to read in your entire life.
Who Should Read “American Fire”? And Why?
As Jennifer Senior, in an illuminating “New York Times” review. writes, ” ‘American Fire’ is an excellent summer vacation companion. It has all the elements of a lively crime procedural: courtroom drama, forensic trivia, toothsome gossip, vexed sex.
It also happens to be a very good portrait of a region in economic decline.”
Needless to add, it should attract the interest of many different groups of people.
About Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is an American bestselling author and feature writer for “The Washington Post.”
As a journalist, she has covered everything from royal weddings, and dog shows to political campaigns and Academy Awards ceremonies.
As an author, she debuted with a work of fiction, the YA historical novel, “Girl in the Blue Coat” which won Hesse the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery and has been translated into many languages.
Her second book was “American Fire,” a non-fiction account of the reasons behind few dozen arson attacks in Accomack County half a decade ago.
It was voted one of NPR’s best books of 2017.
“American Fire PDF Summary”
In 1910, about 70 percent of American lived in rural counties. Nowadays, the ratio is the other way around and some more – rural counties contain barely 15 percent of the nation’s population.
So, what happened with the counties themselves during the past century or so?
What one would expect to happen.
They all but vanished.
Accomack County, for example, is one of the poorest parts of Virginia.
It has as many inhabitants today as it did in 1900, but, unfortunately, it pretty much looks as if it never left that year in many other aspects as well.
Those who did, left Accomack as well, fleeing in bunches in search of better education and more decent jobs.
However, this story is not about them.
It is about Charlie Smith, a former drug-addicted mechanic, and Tonya Bundick, a beautiful but troubled woman – two strange people who chose to remain in Accomack even when life was going so bad they had to, at one point, eat food from dumpsters.
For some reason, they also had to set fire to a house after a deserted house – 67 times!
That’s what Hesse’s book is about.
It all started when Smith, “a decent guy who was just a little lost,” fell in love with Bundick after seeing her at Shuckers, basically the nightlife scene in Accomack.
However, he felt that Bundick is someone who would never look back, so he didn’t make any advance.
Until, one day, she, a very pretty girl “with a fine-boned face and big blue eyes that had the flat, bored look of an Egyptian statue,” approached him and started talking to him.
Soon, Smith and Bundick were a thing.
They were pretty happy as well.
Smith opened a body shop and Bundick a “going out clothes” store.
Both ventures were unsuccessful, and it all went downhill from there.
Still, their love remained. In fact, the couple was busy planning a “November-Rain”-styled wedding with 300 guests (and no money) when the arsons started.
Old, deserted houses went in flames, one by one, night after night – sometimes several in the same evening:
The county would get used to hearing the wail of sirens in the middle of the night, the sound of engines and tankers crunching over gravel. The county would see landmarks go up in flames and neighbors eye one another with suspicion at the grocery store. At night, the roads would transform into a sea of checkpoints and cop cars; citizens trying to get home while Accomack turned into a police state and the county lit up around them.
The obvious question:
Arson – as Hesse writes – is all but a pointless crime.
Especially if you’re not burning down the house of an enemy.
But Smith and Bunding were burning down houses whose residents had left so long ago that most people didn’t even have a recollection they ever existed.
And, if caught, they were potentially facing decades in prison.
So, once again:
Why were they doing that?
Sit down if you’re standing – or even lie down if you’re easily stunned.
Because the answer will certainly shock you:
You see, Smith had fallen deeply in love with Bundick even before she approached him. When she did do that, and they started going out, to him, it was basically a dream-come-true scenario.
Which made the part that followed a nightmare:
He wasn’t able to please Bundick sexually.
But because, to paraphrase his less than subtle description, the moment he fell in love with Bundick, his reproductive organ stopped working.
But how do the arsons enter our story?
Well, one November night, as Smith and Bundick were driving around, Bundick supposedly asked Smith to set a desolate house on fire.
After the initial confusion, he got out of the car and came back after a while telling her that he had done that. He didn’t – but nevertheless, it was the first time in ages he had seen Bundick happy.
Obviously, this was a language of love she understood.
So, the arson spree started.
Key Lessons from “American Fire”
1. When a Man Loves a Woman… He’d Set Houses on Fire
2. Poverty Can Drive People Insane – Especially If They’re Smart
3. Never Underestimate the Power of Love… and Sex
When a Man Loves a Woman… He’d Set Houses on Fire
“American Fire” is a story about Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick, a couple who set fire to 67 desolate houses in Accomack because of love.
In a nutshell, Smith loved (as in loved loved) Bundick, but couldn’t perform in bed.
Bundick, for some reason, asked him to burn down a house.
So, together, they did just that.
67 times altogether.
Poverty Can Drive People Insane – Especially If They’re Smart
True, there were many things besides love which led to the arsons.
One of them makes Hesse think if something like this could have happened somewhere else in America. Possibly it can, she says, but only after saying that “all of these fires could have happened only in Accomack, a place with empty, abandoned buildings, prominently signaling a fall from prosperity.”
Because what else are you going to do when you are stuck in a place such as Accomack?
Hesse met Tonya Bundick once and had an opportunity to talk with her. She concluded that she was a troubled girl.
But also – fairly smart.
And aware that she has been pushed to the very edge.
Never Underestimate the Power of Love… and Sex
At one point, Hesse writes:
They were broke, they were isolated from their families… they were low on work, and they were going to the Food Lion and they were eating garbage… But all of this could have been dealt with if it weren’t for the fact that as soon as he’d fallen in love with Tonya Bundick, he couldn’t perform in bed.
Interestingly, after Smith and Bundick were caught, Smith was still so enchanted with Tonya that he denied that he had anything with the arsons.
It was only after he found out while in prison that Tonya had managed to find another man that he started talking.
In the end, Tonya was sentenced to two more years in prison than Charlie – 17 to his 15.
Allegedly, Charlie has stopped loving her in the meantime.
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“American Fire Quotes”
It ended. Of course it did, it finally did, and like a lot of things, by the time it actually ended, people were starting to become a little less aware of the fact that it was still going on at all. Click To Tweet
Despite all of the research and studying that scientists have put into understanding arsonists over the years, there's a piece of the puzzle that remains inexplicable: Some people light things on fire because they feel like they have to. Click To Tweet
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. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“American Fire” – as Ilana Masad has aptly noted – isn’t a whodunnit, but a whydunnit story. Even so, it manages to wring tension and anticipation up to the very end – which, as any mystery author would tell you, is the most difficult thing to do, even if you try hiding the name of the culprit.
The most fascinating thing is that, even when you finish this book, you’re still left with so many questions, not because Hesse hasn’t tried to answer them, but because, simply put, they may be unanswerable.
You’ll also leave with one breathtaking realization: that you’ve just read a book so haunting that you probably won’t forget most of it in the foreseeable future.