“I spent the next two years trying to understand why he did it. 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. America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.

“But it also involved love. The kind of love that is vaguely crazy and then completely crazy and then collapses in on itself in a way that leaves the participants bewildered and telling very different stories about what actually happened.”

So begins author, Monica Hesse’s telling of the story, American Fire: Love, Arson, And Life in a Vanishing Land. It’s the story of couple who victimized the Eastern Shore neighborhoods of Virginia and set over sixty fires in the space of six months. By the end of this jaw dropping story she writes how Accomack County itself was  a victim. Of the economic downturn and shrinking population and an outmoded way of life, collecting abandoned buildings ripe for burning. She laments that what happened here could have happened in southern Ohio or eastern Oregon or, maybe, anywhere.

Hesse delivers on all of the teases in her opening paragraphs. She artfully sets the stage for the crimes and introduces lovers Tonya and Charlie and their baggage and desperation. She writes about shrinking volunteer fire departments and what it means to belong to a community. Like all good nonfiction, American Fire reads like fiction, but it’s not.

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