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Alfred Box of Books Library 1 364.164 HES Adult NonFiction Book
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Branchport - Modeste Bedient Memorial Library 1 364.16 H Adult NonFiction Book
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Corning - Southeast Steuben County Library 1 364.164 HES Adult NonFiction Book
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Elmira - Steele Memorial Library 1 364.164 HES New NonFiction Book
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Hammondsport - Fred and Harriett Taylor Memorial Library 1 364.164 HES New NonFiction Book
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Penn Yan Public Library 1 364.1642 HES Adult NonFiction Book
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Wellsville - David A. Howe Public Library 1 364.164 HES Adult NonFiction Book
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Summary

Summary

The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn't stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate--there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie's confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn't lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other's inspiration and escape...until they weren't.

Though it's hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it's been drained of its industry--agriculture--as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America--a land half gutted before the fires even began.


Author Notes

Monica Hesse is a feature writer for the Washington Post. Winner of the Edgar Award and a finalist for a Livingston and James Beard Award, she is also the author of Girl in the Blue Coat. She lives in Washington, DC.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In late 2012, an arsonist began plaguing Accomack County, Virginia. Located on the state's Eastern Shore, part of the Delmarva peninsula, Accomack was once booming farm country situated along the railroad that profitably connected the U.S. north and south beginning in the 1880s. By 2012, though, chicken corporations Perdue and Tyson had supplanted family farms as the county's largest employers, and the railroad went unused. Over 80 buildings, most already abandoned on one occasion, a coop was torched only after its resident chickens had clearly been made to exit would burn into 2013, baffling local law enforcement and far overextending the fire departments, all made up of volunteers, from surrounding communities. Washington Post staffer Hesse, also an Edgar-winning author of a YA mystery, introduces the man responsible, Charlie Smith, a ne'er-do-well with a heart of gold, in the first chapter. She generates suspense in describing Charlie's personal life and all-consuming romantic relationship; how he is finally caught; and, ultimately, his motivation. Hesse enters the compelling narrative with restraint in probing, essayistic analyses. She tells the story of the fires and of the Eastern Shore and the people she got to know there with an earned familiarity that, at the same time, speaks of the unknowability of a vast, rapidly changing nation.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2017 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat) leads readers on an extended tour of a bizarre five-month crime spree in rural Accomack County, Va.: a series of over 80 arsons, of predominantly abandoned buildings, committed by a local couple. It began one day in November 2012 with four fires in 24 hours and carried on for five months. As hysteria mounted, police camped out in tents near potential targets and a group of vigilantes set up their own operation. At the center of this narrative is the extremely compelling couple: Charlie Smith, a 38-year-old recovering drug addict, and Tonya Bundick, a 40-year-old partier described as the "queen" of the local nightclub, Shuckers. Hesse traces their romance from charming Facebook exchanges and plans of a Guns N' Roses themed wedding to passing notes in the prison yard after their arrest. Their love totally imploded under the pressure of their prosecution. Hesse offers sociological insight into a small town where "doors went unlocked, bake sales and brisket fund-raisers were well attended" despite its downward economic trajectory. There is something metaphorical, she notes, about a rural county suffering through a recession being literally burned to the ground. The metaphor becomes belabored by the time Hesse shoehorns in a comparison between small-town America and the aforementioned Shuckers, but otherwise this is a page-turning story of love gone off the rails. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

In this debut, Washington Post reporter Hesse details the more than two years she spent covering a string of arson fires in rural Virginia. In late 2012, an arsonist lit a series of fires in Accomack County, with more than 80 of them ignited over the course of a five-month spree. Hesse's narrative highlights the twisted love story of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick. Charlie is a 38-year-old recovering drug addict, in and out of prison owing to crimes ranging from forgery to robbery. Here, Charlie explains how he committed these crimes to support his drug habit. Tonya is a 40-year-old mother of two, nurse and local socialite-described as the "queen" of the neighborhood nightclub. Thanks to Hesse's detailed reporting, readers learn more about the arsonists and their motives. The ensuing drama becomes a microcosm of the desolation of rural America and a metaphor for the emptiness that continues to pervade many areas of the country. VERDICT A page-turning story of love and loss for all readers; fans of quirky crime dramas will find it especially appealing.-Gary Medina, El Camino Coll., Torrance, CA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


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