...a brisk, captivating and expertly crafted reconstruction of a community living through a time of fear, confusion and danger ... 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 ... 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.
A cautionary word, issued out of extreme admiration and enthusiasm for Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land: Do not be deterred by its chewy beginning and gooey finish ... it’s clear that she has talent to burn. Its excesses notwithstanding — and there are a few others — 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 ... As with S-Town and the best episodes of This American Life, Hesse has managed to wring tension and excitement out of a story with a known ending. One of the most elusive skills in narrative nonfiction, and Hesse has it, is knowing the proper order to arrange your facts.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land is a page-turner of a true-crime book, even though we know pretty early on (by page 11) who did it ... In Hesse’s capable hands, Charlie’s story becomes a metaphor for the desperation and sadness of a rural county on the decline. 'The county went about its business,' she writes. 'The county burned down.'”
Hesse doesn't provide a satisfying simple answer. Instead, she gives us a truth according to Charlie, Accomack county firefighters, transcripts of 911 calls — in other words, a truth that is messy and nuanced, complex, and sometimes contradictory ... thankfully Hesse doesn't spend too much time using the fires as a metaphor for the larger Rust Belt. While she does allow herself to generalize occasionally, she mostly focuses on this particular place, its people, and its story. What emerges is a vivid depiction of a community that is struggling economically in present-day America, but is rich in its human connections.
The arson investigation takes in a lot. But the propulsive pleasure of American Fire rests in author Monica Hesse's decision not to force a thing. The book has the brisk diligence of big-city journalism and the languid chattiness of the small town where she lived while researching it ... Hesse gathers the pieces but leaves connections to the reader. When they snap together, the feeling is a bit like gazing upon a blaze you've just lit.
You’d expect the book she got out of it to be engrossing, and it is ... To her credit, Hesse mostly lets the metaphors speak for themselves. Instead, she sticks to the facts of the case and the bewilderment of the local inhabitants, fire personnel and authority figures, all of whom were, to one extent or another, victims of the unusual crimes ... Ultimately, in Hesse’s telling, American Fire is less a story about economics than how fire is like a love affair: Sometimes it can rage out of control, but it inevitably gives way to dying embers. 'Love is a weird act,' she concludes. It’s unfathomable even to the two people consumed by it. Almost by definition, those two people are mutually deluded.
...a wry, gently meandering narrative that strains to find deeper meaning in a tale of love gone awry ... Hesse pads American Fire with chapters on the crime of arson and various pairs of criminals, including Bonnie and Clyde and Leopold and Loeb. But as she zooms in on the two lovers, their deteriorating relationship, Bundick's troubled past, and their capture and interrogation, her discursive narrative becomes more engrossing.
A captivating narrative about arson, persistent law enforcers, an unlikely romantic relationship, and a courtroom drama ... As Hesse constructs her narrative, the surprises arrive in the manner of the arrest, the motives for the fires, and the outcomes of the multiple trials. Throughout, the author offers a nuanced portrait of a way of life unknown to most who have never resided on or visited the Eastern Shore. A true-crime saga that works in every respect.
Hesse’s book isn’t about finding the culprits, unmasked at the outset as an auto mechanic and his girlfriend. It’s about trying to understand the combination of social and personal pressures that led the pair to crisscross the county like a sort of Bonnie and Clyde, dousing rags and lighting matches. Hesse, who covered the arsons for The Washington Post, is an ace reporter, but she’s an even better storyteller. American Fire is as propulsive as a crime thriller.
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.