...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.'”