"What really happened" is rarely something that can be pinned down: Where I see a pat on the back, you might see an assault; where I remember a rainy day, you may remember a hurricane. And then, of course, people lie. In American Fire, journalist Monica Hesse faces these quandaries of interpretation, faulty memory and lies, and deals eloquently with the he-said-she-said elements of her story.
On November 12, 2012, in a rural county called Accomack on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, an abandoned house blazed. While no one was hurt, it was a long night for the firefighters — not because that particular fire proved a challenge, but because they were called to put out two more that night. Over the next five months, they'd be called out again and again, sometimes several times a night, often several nights in a row. "The county went about its business," Hesse writes. "The county burned down."
The dictionary defines arson as "the willful or malicious burning of property (such as a building) especially with criminal or fraudulent intent." But arson is also emotional, psychological: It's taking something internal like rage or passion, and externalizing it as a part of nature we can spark but not necessarily control. "Arson is a weird crime," Hesse writes, and it's true — you gain little from it, unless maybe you're committing insurance fraud to get rich or destroying an enemy's property as revenge. The buildings that burned down in Accomack were almost all abandoned structures whose last owners were barely remembered by the neighbors.
The damage being done, as far as the county was concerned, was to property. But the story Hesse tells is about the toll the arson took on the lives of its residents, who were living in fear and uncertainty. What if a fire finally jumped from an abandoned house to an occupied one? What if the firefighters, all volunteers, got hurt? What if the arsonist decided to target a family home?
American Fire isn't a whodunit — it's a whydunit. The book's back cover reveals that a man named Charlie Smith was convicted of 67 counts of arson in 2013, and he and his girlfriend Tonya are the exclusive subjects of several chapters. So the who is never the mystery to the readers, though it was to the county, and Hesse describes police efforts to catch the arsonist. But the why remains unknown, and as Hesse writes in her preface, the "answer, inasmuch as there is an answer for these things, involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms (the chopped meat sold in the frozen food aisle) intrigue, and America." More on America in a moment, but as for the rest, it's all explored in Charlie and Tonya's story.
Both were both locals with difficult lives. Charlie was a car mechanic with a string of arrests and a history of addiction; Tonya was raising two kids and worked at a home for the elderly. Both were part of their communities — Charlie once worked as a volunteer firefighter himself, and Tonya frequented a local bar called Shuckers. It was at this bar that they met, and where they got engaged. Charlie loved Tonya to the point of trying to protect her when he was first caught — and she continues to deny any involvement in the fires, despite a technical guilty plea. A logical, clear-cut explanation as to why he — or they — lit the fires remains elusive. 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.
"All of these fires could have happened only in Accomack, a place with empty, abandoned buildings, prominently signaling a fall from prosperity..." But then again, Hesse admits, "Maybe it could have happened anywhere." Maybe, but it didn't, and 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.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and editor for hire.