A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

TRUE CRIME THURSDAY- American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica


Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn't lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America - a land half gutted before the fires even began.




American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing LandAmerican Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse is a 2017 Liveright publication.

This is an incredible piece of true crime journalism that explores the people and events that transpired in Accomack County. Virginia in 2012/13.

Within a short five- month time frame, an astonishing number of arson fires were set, mainly in abandoned buildings and houses. This was not your typical case of pyromania- this turned out to be a 'rampage' crime- committed by a couple who claimed love was at the core of their actions.

This book takes readers through the beginning of the relationship between Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick, when the fires started, the escalation of the crimes and the investigation which led to Charlie’s arrest.

The book’s construction is very much like reading a long form piece in a magazine or newspaper-but so stylishly executed, that despite knowing who the Firestarter is, the reader is compelled to turn pages until they see the culprits are caught and their motives fully examined.

The author’s emotional involvement in the story is very evident. The combination of an economic decline, the once passionate- ( but chaste), relationship between Charlie and Tonya that turns toxic and unhealthy, and the power plays that pits one against the other makes for a riveting read.

The book is not long, but it packs a real punch. The psychology behind arson is puzzling in the first place- not counting insurance fraud- but this case really is one for the books.

I sensed the author had compassion for all concerned, even Charlie and Tonya- but I couldn’t quite muster the same level of charity for the doers. I sensed both Charlie and Tonya got a real premeditated thrill from it, and I have wondered just how far they may have gone if left unimpeded.

However, there is one thing that really stands out in all this mayhem- The volunteer firefighters who logged in a whopping number of hours trying to control these fires. Amazing! For them, and the entire community affected by the spree, I gained the utmost respect.

Overall, a fascinating and deeply absorbing, and thought- provoking true crime piece!



Monica Hesse is the national bestselling author of the true crime love story American Fire and the Edgar Award-winning young adult historical mystery novel Girl in the Blue Coat, which has been translated into a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the American Booksellers Association's Indies Choice Award. She is a feature writer for the Washington Post, where she has covered royal weddings, dog shows, political campaigns, Academy Awards ceremonies, White House state dinners, and some events that felt like a mixture of all of the above. She has talked about these stories, and other things, on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, CSPAN, FOX and NPR. She has been a winner of the Society for Feature Journalism's Narrative Storytelling award, and a finalist for a Livingston Award and a James Beard Award. Monica lives in Maryland. with her husband and a brainiac dog.

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