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

Monica Hesse debuts her first foray into the world of non-fiction with a gripping story about a string of arson attacks that lasted for five months. The first arson attack takes place in Accomack County in Virginia, the area being an easy target. That state’s Eastern Shore is a 70-mile-long point off the coast of Virginia Beach, and not only is it extremely isolated, it was also filled with abandoned houses that were ripe for burning.

If you read the book’s cover, you’ll find that the man who eventually took credit for all of the arson attacks was a car mechanic called Charlie Smith. While to some it may seem strange to reveal the perpetrator right from the beginning, it’s certainly something that separates true-crime books from fictional novels, after all, if you had lived in the area then you’d likely have seen his face on the evening news already.

Hesse goes into great detail about the criminal history of Charlie Smith, the arson certainly wasn’t his first offence and he had in fact been sent to prison for his criminal acts in the past. Although seemingly having previously motivated by profit – or even pragmatism – his acts of arson appeared to speak to a deep emotional need to cause destruction (NY Times review).

American Fire is a story not just about the crimes of one particular individual, but also a story about the decline of a once prosperous region of America. While this isn’t a story with a happy ending, it certainly gives readers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who find themselves failing to properly deal with the hard times they live in.