Review: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

American Fire

Monica Hesse

July 11, 2017

A breathtaking feat of reportage, American Fire by Monica Hesse combines procedural with love story, redefining American tragedy for our time.

American Fire by Monica Hesse tells the complicated story of nearly 70 fires lit in rural Virginia from late 2012 through early 2013. The case captured the attention of the nation and for good reason. It is a fascinating story that is more about the community that endured the fires than the fires themselves.

Nonfiction writing requires a special touch to be engaging. Too many dry facts and the story gets boring; stray too far into conjecture and I tend to spend my time wondering if any of the story is true.

This is where Hesse’s storytelling skill shines. In American Fire, Hesse does a masterful job of using the facts as a framework for a story to bring the arson spree to life. She does this by pairing facts with quotes, analyzing the factors that affect the case, and delving into the reasons for and the repercussions of the decline in community.

Unlike most whodunits, the focus of this story isn’t on the identity of the arsonists. That is because the most intriguing part about this case isn’t who the arsonists are, but rather why they lit the fires.

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 foods aisle), intrigue, and America.

What happens to an old railroad town when the railroad is gone? What happens to a modern, high-class resort when the tourists stop coming? What happens to a community when the money leaves and the community falls apart?

For example, on the Eastern Shore, the Fire Houses had always been an integral part of the community. Sons learned how to fight fires beside their fathers and brothers. Community members dropped off meals and participated in fundraisers. In recent years, the number of volunteers had diminished—but why? Was it the increased cost of training? The increase in fundraising duties? The prevalence of Xboxes, iPhones, and Netflix, as Director of Public Safety C. Ray Pruitt postulated? Hesse examines this shift away from the firehouses without straying too far from the story of the fires.

The writer also examines how the fires brought the community together through fear, paranoia, and the increasing need for firefighters. She describes how the volunteers begin to sleep at the firehouses instead of their own warm beds so they could get to the fires faster.

They ran out of couch space and some of them started sleeping in chairs. The group would arrive together, and sleep together, and if they needed to eat, they would try to do that together, too, so when the call came through they would already be in the same car. Waitresses at Panzotti’s Pizza and Waffles got used to seeing large groups of tired men scramble away from their table pies untouched, bill unpaid, promising to come back the next day to settle up.

Monica Hesse spent a year following and investigating this case for the Washington Post, and her intimate knowledge of both the case and the community where the fires took place make for a fascinating read. I highly recommend this book for readers interested in American history or crime.

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