American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

  • By Monica Hesse
  • Liveright
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth MacBride
  • December 15, 2017

This exploration of the haunted, burning heart of rural America leaves much unsaid about its soul.

A sense of hopelessness attends American Fire from the first pages. The arsons strike in the stark, grey month of November in Accomack, Virginia. The fields are shorn and filled with decaying husks when the first abandoned house in this declining rural county goes up in flames.

“It was fancy, two stories, hardwoods, generations of the same family living and dying and moving in and out until finally somebody moved out and nobody moved in,” writes Monica Hesse, the author and Washington Post feature writer who has taken on the story of America’s most recent famous arsonists.

In a five-month span in late 2012 and early 2013, lovers Tonya Bundick and Charlie Smith set 67 fires to abandoned properties in Accomack, fooling investigators and keeping law enforcement at bay.

They met at a bar: Charlie a slightly slow man who’d dropped out of ninth grade and painted cars for a living; Tonya the single mother of two boys and the kind of woman who turned men’s heads. Hesse traces their relationship through the first days — the cutesy Facebook posts — to their decision to live together, to their wedding plans, to the point where things soured.

American Fire is a compelling procedural that pulls readers along the dark roads of Accomack as neighbors and volunteer firefighters climb wearily out of their beds to fight another and another and another blaze.

Hesse writes with fascinating precision about everything from the firehouse to the compulsion to commit arson, “monomania incendiaire,” to the love story at the heart of the book, “the kind of love that is vaguely crazy and then completely crazy and then collapses in on itself in a way that leaves participants bewildered.”

Eventually, Bundick and/or Smith put a lighter to the county’s Whispering Pines hotel, one of those sad landmarks rich with stories and memories of better times that dot rural America:

“The beginnings of fires were always filled with adrenaline and anticipation. The ends of them were soot and weariness and fire hoses that needed to be cleaned. The ground was hot and the wood wasn’t wood anymore. Fire killed one part of the hotel, water killed another and eventually, months later, the earth would snake up through the collapsed beams…”

In the truck outside, after the fire is over, the fire chief fell asleep in his truck next to a reporter from the local Fox TV station. After 66 fires, everyone was exhausted. It was on fire 67, the next night, that Bundick and Smith were caught. Profilers and criminal experts had identified likely targets, and state troopers stood guard.

Smith confessed, and from that admission, Hesse is able to glean what is likely the truth: that Bundick was in control.

The photographs and details of Smith and Bundick’s lives make reading parts of American Fire a little bit like opening up the old Tupperware containers in your fridge; I shied away. I read about how they tried to take care of the three children they had between them; how Bundick quit her nursing-assistant job to be home more; how she opened a small clothing shop to try to bring in money. How the payments on furniture they’d purchased when they first fell in love came due.

“One night, Charlie found himself picking through the dumpsters behind Food Lion looking for perfectly fine meat, not for the pets but for his family.”

American Fire is a dark story, and a darker and more important one because of its setting.

The ultimate gift of nonfiction is to share what the writer thinks and feels. But Hesse never fully grapples with how much of the tragedy is rooted in this place. The houses are decaying, rotting. They burn fast. Hope burns out more slowly.

Smith, who is drawn as a sad high-school dropout, did most of the work of actually setting the fires. He loved Bundick. But we never understand why Bundick wanted the flames. What was she burning down? Smith himself, who couldn’t perform sexually? The parents who sometimes sent her to school hungry? An economy and an environment that consigned her, like the clothes in her shop?

Hesse interviews Bundick’s sister. “Occasionally, their mother would be able to secret away a quarter from the grocery money so they could each buy an ice cream cone at school. She would quietly slip it into their hands as they were leaving for school in the mornings. This was the happiest memory that [Tonya’s sister] could conjure when she thought of her children and it was tinged with sadness because she also remembered her mother saying, ‘Don’t tell your father.’”

A feat of reportage doesn’t make a claim to be compassionate. And yet I found myself wishing for the kind of insight compassion brings.

Smith and Bundick are the heart of the book, but there are many other characters. Hesse, describing them, is the ultimate outsider, the journalist with the fancy career who, at the end of the day, can leave the struggling people of Accomack County behind. Charlie Rose showed up at one point, too, to interview the volunteer firefighters who are ultimately only lightly touched on by Hesse. “They’d suddenly become heroes; famous in a way people from Accomack never expected to become famous and in a way most of them never would be again.”

Many of Hesse’s readers will be similarly interested but unattached visitors, outsiders peering in to an almost foreign country on our own soil, where families walk away from houses, and little kids, another Tonya, might be going to school hungry.

The last sentence of the book acknowledges the lack of a satisfying answer to the story’s bigger questions. After Smith is sentenced to 15 years and Bundick to 17.5 in a courthouse in Virginia Beach, the investigators and cops climb back in their cars to head home.

“The lunchtime traffic was bad but not too bad, and they hit the Accomack border some ninety minutes later, and everything was quiet, and whatever passions had caused the fires had ended, and nothing was burning anymore.”

Nothing visible, anyway.

Elizabeth MacBride is a freelance journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Quartz, TheAtlantic.com, and many other publications.

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