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

American Fire Monica Hesse (Aug 2017) So much of life is intangible, and places don’t feel like they’re disappearing to the people who are living there.

This review is an ode to independent bookstores, journalists who write books, rainy vacation days and to Virginia.

My husband Tom and I like to come back to Chincoteague Island as often as we can. We eloped here in July of 2011 and we continue to come back because it is a peaceful place that speaks to us. We both grew up in small rural communities – Tom in NW Georgia and me in SW Virginia. There is something about the timelessness of this place that author Monica Hesse captures in this book about Accomack County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

I likely would not have encountered this book except I am drawn to independent bookstores like a moth to a flame. Sundial Books on the Main Street of Chincoteague Island was featuring this book on a display that faced the front door. Perhaps it’s the cover photo that is vaguely reminiscent of the cover of Hillbilly Elegy that drew me to the book. The well written synopsis on the inside of the dust jacket and knowing it was written by a journalist with The Washington Post made it a “must have” a minute after I picked it up.

The reason I don’t mind rainy days on vacation is because they are meant for reading. In fact, I love a rainy vacation day because I rarely ever have the luxury of reading a book from start to finish in a single day. And here I was, sitting in Accomack County reading a book about the arson that gripped this rural community for five and a half months in 2012 and 2013. Over eighty-five fires, multiple fires a night, that stretched the capacity of the all volunteer fire departments to cover a rural county where they identified 1,400 abandoned buildings that were all possible targets.

I couldn’t put this book down. Monica Hesse did such wonderful research on every aspect of this story. The history of Accomack County is one I did not know, despite being a native Virginian whose own ancestors go back to the 1600s – just like many families who are central to this story. Many of us know our own stories and the stories of where we come from, but learning about the other histories of Virginia is endlessly fascinating to me. Beth Macy, a journalist with The Roanoke Times made the story of the furniture industry in southern Virginia equally captivating in her book Factory Man. I hope this is a trend that continues among journalists who see the potential for a good story to become a book of real substance.

There is a true art to writing non-fiction that reads like a novel. American Fire is well written and the structure of the story is what keeps you turning the pages to find out more. It’s about so much more than the story of the arsons and the arsonists. It’s about a way of life that most of us cannot relate to. I loved the designations of Born Heres, Come Heres and Been Heres. I get that. Her specificity of this being a “close knit community” rather than a “small community” is also important to the story because the county is large but sparsely populated.

One hundred years ago, Accomack County was the richest rural county in the nation. The railroad and potato farming created wealth and jobs for the people who lived here. The advent of the automobile was the beginning of the end of that boom time. Now chicken farming is the main industry here with Perdue and Tysons being the major employers here in the county. The population is aging and young people leave to find better opportunities on the mainland. This is the economic story of towns and counties all over America who have seen the rise and decline of industries that built and sustained communities but can sustain them no longer.

I highly recommend this book. Hesse draws you into the stories of people in a singular moment in their county’s history. While the main protagonists of this book are the arsonists, the other people central to this story are authentically drawn as well. Her research is meticulous and thorough, her end notes generous to all those who made this book possible. She is a good storyteller and this story was crying out to be told.

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