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

My library copy of American Fire on audiobook.

One of my favorite books of the year slipped in at the end, with the audiobook version of 2017’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse and read by Tanya Eby.

Hesse is a Washington Post reporter, who ended up in Accomack County, Virginia of all places because Accomack County not only on its own serves as a metaphor for America (the hollowing out and aging of rural America over the last few decades and the lost souls left behind to pick up the pieces), but the county suffered one heck of an arson spree in late 2012 and early 2013.

Charlie Smith, a local man who was on good terms with the sheriff and even a Virginia State Trooper, had that “awe shucks, Charlie,” factor about him. Despite his shortcomings, which included forgery and repeated drug relapses, people still liked Charlie and wanted to help him.

But one day, Charlie meets Tonya Bundick, another local with two kids from a prior relationship. Tonya apparently comes from a family of abject poverty and abuse; the sort of girl growing up who was picked on at school because of how poor she looked. Yet, if nothing else had happened, she’d be a quintessential rags to middle class Disney story because it seemed like that. She had Charlie, who doted on her, two lovely children, their own clothing shop and suddenly, this poor, unremarkable girl had become noticeably beautiful, drawing the attention of men well into her 30s.

Yet, somewhere in the gaps, where Tonya’s unspoken (Charlie knew nothing about her past, which is usually a red flag!) trauma lived, were the embers of that would-be Disney story’s undoing. Add in the fact that Charlie suffered from erectile dysfunction for the 18 months he was with Tonya and it was the perfect … accelerant for destruction.

I’ll get back to the story itself, but Hesse does a fascinating job with two sidebars that really made this book standout for me:

  • She goes into the issue of arson itself and how fraught investigating an arson can be. Consider, it’s perhaps the only crime where the objective of the rescuers is to destroy evidence. That is, the firefighters, in order to put out the fire, must destroy at least some evidence. That makes investigating fires all the more challenging. Add in the fact that Accomack County is quite large and due to the aforementioned hollowing out, the county has ample abandoned houses in which to be destroyed in the boonies with no witnesses and the investigators are coming up with zilch. (Interestingly, too, is how much Hesse dives into the firefighters who fought the arson fires and the fact that they are all volunteer! I forgot how much of the country still relies on volunteer firefighters, often who had fathers and grandfathers who were also volunteer firefighters, and how much credentialism (and professionalizing) hollowed that out, too).
  • The power dynamics of romantic couples who commit crimes, with the obvious paradigm being Bonnie and Clyde, but there are others, such as Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo in Canada. With such power couples, there’s always the submissive one and the dominant one leading the way vicariously through the submissive one. At least in the case of Charlie and Tonya, it sure seems like Charlie is the submissive one and Tonya the dominant one. That’s how it was portrayed at trial and Charlie ended up testifying against her. We’re fascinated by crime in general, but romantic couple crime captures the imagination because it shows how toxic love can lead to bad places. (I would also add another infamous crime couple with the same power dynamic, but in a platonic sense: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters.)

Even with how big and sparse the county is, once the arsons started, it’s still wild to me how two not-so-mastermind criminals in Charlie and Tonya (riding around in their family minivan, no less!) were able to keep getting away with it. The first few I understand, but once the pressure of multiple law enforcement agencies and mainstream media attention came to bear upon the county, along with citizen groups trying to catch the arsonists and the advent of all kinds of security cameras and such, how did they end up committing more than 66-some arsons?

Worse, law enforcement didn’t even have clues. At best, they had a grainy security video image of a hooded figure they speculated could be a woman (and probably was Tonya), albeit they were skeptical they were dealing with a female arsonist, but other than that, nothing. They didn’t have anything until Charlie was caught setting a house on fire by state troopers who were camped out near by (as they had been for weeks hoping to see something).

And keep in mind, when I’m mentioning 66-some arsons, those are structure fires. We’re not merely talking about Charlie lighting a dumpster on fire or something. These are houses and churches.

Now, the thing is, it seems like the couple didn’t intend to harm anyone and as far as Hesse’s investigation uncovers, they didn’t (heck, Charlie even made pains to spare chickens at one arson), but let’s remember what fire is: a raging, unpredictable beast. Humans can’t control a fire once it starts. You may intend not to harm anyone, but once it’s ignited, who knows what could happen? As Hesse points out repeatedly, the wrong wind here, or the right accelerant there, and you’re talking about the entire neighborhood going up in flames and for sure, people dying.

Not to say anything, either, of the danger the volunteer firefighters were in whenever they had to fight the fires.

The investigation, despite not having clues, still did hone in on some interesting techniques that I guess you could say panned out in the end. Primarily, this idea that all criminals either intentionally or subconsciously adhere to patterns. Because they’re human and us humans like patterns. It’s how our brains make sense of the world. So, even though Charlie and Tonya were seemingly hitting houses at random (although some, we later learn, weren’t so random), the subconscious creates a pattern where there’s always a “home base” and then the crime fans out from there. If you can find the home base, then it’s a matter of tedious, exhaustive manpower to cover the geography of the radius. To help somewhat, you then cross-reference what you believe to be the most likely next targets within that radius and put bodies and eyeballs on them.

Which is what they did with the state troopers and what eventually led to Charlie and Tonya’s downfall. Now, that’s true boots-on-the-ground police work!

As I’m listening to audiobooks, I often jot down notes that intrigue me. Here are some other notable elements from the book:

  • Charlie’s own brother, Brian Applegate, was a volunteer firefighter and responded to, and fought, the last fire Charlie set in his arson spree with Tonya. It’s just unbelievable to imagine months and months of the arsonist(s) alluding law enforcement and an entire county losing its mind trying to figure out how who this mastermind is and it turns out to be someone everyone knows (it’s one of those counties), dopey Charlie.
  • As mentioned, one of metaphors throughout the book offered by Hesse is that of the hollowing out of Accomack County, so she spends time covering the history of the county and the larger Eastern Shore of Virginia. The advent of potato farming helped to shape the Eastern Shore and Accomack, making it a rich rural place, but over time, farmers blamed, in part, the advent of Doritos, Fritos and Tostitos in the 1950s and 1960s for cutting into the “wholesome” potato. Farmers claimed, “What’s even in those things?” I love that tidbit by Hesse. First, it’s funny to think about how something we all thing of as woven into the fabric of junk food, Doritos, is relatively young. There are people living today who are older than the Dorito! Secondly, the advent of a new way of doing things, including with the potato, will always face pushback from the people holding on to the prior way of doing things.
  • Folks, I mentioned one red flag in a romantic couple being one of the partners not knowing anything about the other partner’s past, but another red flag? Sharing a Facebook profile and merging your names on it. Gross. Huge red flag.
  • I’m not as familiar with Virginia law and the courts, but it’s baffling to me that Tonya was charged with 66 counts of arson and her defense attorneys successfully argued for 66 different trials, i.e., one trial per count. What?! So, if Tonya would have wanted to fight each one, you’re telling me we would have had 66 years of trials, give or take?
  • But Tonya ended up taking an Alfred plea, which allows her to maintain her innocence, but admits that, if the case were to proceed, the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a guilty verdict. This is usually done to avoid a worse sentencing.

I think there’s something fraught about coming into a county and trying to make any singular county (or a crime story, even!) a microcosm for the story of America because by the nature of such a project, that’s a big ask and a lot of extrapolating. I experienced that in my own county when a New York Times reporter wanted to do exactly that with one of the election outcomes. Her story was commendable and I appreciated it, but also, it still felt like, can we really do this? Can we really extrapolate this much? And so, admittedly, my priors made me skeptical of Hesse’s project here, which obviously isn’t subtle (the book is called American Fire, after all). However, not only does she end up falling somewhere in the middle on Accomack County (between being this grandiose metaphor for America and being this sleepy rural community), but I do think she succeeds in the metaphor and her project therein.

The arsons do feel distinctly manifest from a stew only America could conjure up over decades, even down to the detail of toxic masculinity, wherein Charlie thought the way to keep Tonya happy — because he was unable to satisfy this beautiful woman in bed — was to set fires with her.

And perhaps the most American thing in the book? After six months or so of fervid speculation and inquiry as to who the arsonist(s) could be (Tonya even posted often in the Facebook groups dedicated to them), by the time Tonya copped her Alfred plea to the remaining counts against her nearly two years after her initial arrest? Everyone was kind of tired of, and dare I say moving on from, the story.

The hunt is never as exciting as the capture and certainly not as exciting as watching the slow gears of the criminal justice system operate.

If you, too, want a deeply American crime story, parsed out in painstaking investigatory detail by a credible reporter and placed in a fascinating, wider context, then I’d highly recommend the book in any format. However, I did enjoy Tanya Eby’s narration for the audiobook and want to give her a special shoutout.

Is there a subgenre in the true crime category for, shall I say, sad crime? Because the story of Charlie and Tonya makes me sad more than anything else. Bewildered at how a couple turns the switch to become perpetrators of a crime spree, to be sure. Fascinated by how they were able to get away with it for so long, mhmm. But more than anything, I walk away from this book feeling sad. For Charlie. For Tonya (she is an abuse victim after all, not that that excuses what she did). For Accomack County, which exists as a character, too.

And for those in America who feel lost and are searching for some sort of meaning. Hopefully, they don’t draw their meaning from playing with fire, as Charlie and Tonya did.

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