Hops and Skips

Recommended Read: American Fire by Monica Hesse

In my job as a middle school librarian, I am constantly trying to coax my kids into reading beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or the short biographies of WWE stars, or the manga series, or whatever it is they’ve read 44 times already because it’s easy and they already know they enjoy it. I want them to read broadly and discover new genres or topics that are outside their comfort zone.

In my personal reading, I try to follow my own example and read things towards which I wouldn’t naturally gravitate. When I lived in New York, I was part of a great book club that led me to unfamiliar titles and authors, but for the past couple of years I’ve depended on Book Riot’s annual Read Harder Challenge to help me read broadly. The deal is, you’re given categories with parameters, and then you read a book of your choosing that fits each. I’ll be honest—since this challenge began about five years ago, the categories have gotten very specific and are sometimes daunting to even consider… but I guess you’ve gotta step beyond just “a mystery” ever year, right??

The book that launched my participation this year is Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land for the “book of nonviolent true crime.” Hesse adapted her compelling 2014 story from the Washington Post into a full narrative on the 70+ fires set in rural Accomack County, Virginia, by a seemingly-ordinary couple.

“To talk about arson is to talk about buildings burning down. To talk about the term ‘pyromania’ is really to talk about the unfathomable mysteries of the human brain and the human heart: Why do we do things? Why do we want things? What moves us, and stirs us, and why are some people moved by the things that the rest of us find inexplicable or abhorrent?”

The “what” is an easy question to answer: over the course of about five months in 2012 and 2013, dozens of fires were purposefully set, most in the county’s many abandoned buildings, calling the local volunteer fire departments up from their beds repeatedly, night after night, sometimes more than once in the same night.

The “who” is easy, as well: Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundnick, two well-known local residents, each with their own stories and troubles, but not, ultimately, unlike any of their friends or neighbors.

It’s the “why” that’s difficult to answer, and it’s the question Hesse attempts to explain over the course of American Fire. We learn about Charlie, a local boy with a history of addiction—a bit hapless, not the brightest, but kind of endearing. We learn about Tonya, who seems the more dominant one in the relationship, partly just because Charlie is endlessly smitten with her. Her life hasn’t been easy, either—growing up with an abusive father and, later, raising two boys as a single mom.

And we learn about Accomack County, which perhaps lends the most clues to answer the question of why these two ordinary people went on an arson spree, costing the county thousands, in expenses and work hours. The Eastern Shore was once a prosperous agricultural region, no better illustrated than by its very inclusion in the Pennsylvania Railroad system. It was a synergistic cycle: profits brought the railroad, and the railroad provided more profits. Towns grew, and then boomed; with the boom came modern technology—telephones, electricity; then came the vacationers, and resorts like the Whispering Pines opened, a brick and mortar symbol that the region had “made it.” But as agricultural competition rose, prices fell, as did profits. Cars made the railroad obsolete, and Accomack County, like so many rural regions across the country, began a long, slow decline into economic struggle and limited opportunity.

There’s no easy or straightforward answer as to why these two lit their world on fire (literally). But Hesse reveals pieces of the puzzle, hoping to build a picture that explains why people do the things they do. This was an incredibly compelling read, even already knowing from the beginning how it’d turn out in the end (though I kept myself from further Googling the story until I finished!). It’s a mystery, a character study, and a portrait of a place that is familiar and quintessentially American. We know places like this, and we know people like this. This familiarity gives the feeling that it’s our story, too, which makes this an irresistible read—just the kind to delve into on a snow day.

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