Monday, September 4, 2017

American Fire by Monica Hesse

As with most of the books I read, I heard about this one on NPR.  I am also on a true crime kick right now - think Making a Murderer, the Keepers, the disappearance of Maura Murray and Adnan Syed. So when I heard about this book, I was intrigued.

This book is non-fiction written by journalist Monica Hesse, in which she tries to determine the question of what really happened in a rural Southern county. In November, 2012 in Accomack County, Virginia, the first abandoned house went up in flames. It was a long night, even though no one died.  There were two further fires that night in the area, so firefighters were extremely busy. Over the course of a few months, firefighters were seemingly called out every night as further homes blazed - it was quickly determined that these were the works of an arsonist or arsonists.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was Hesse's attempt to delve into the reasons that an arsonist would commit arson.  It's not just a property crime. In many ways, it's an emotional and psychological crime too - think pyromania or control issues or a desire to please or all three! It also impacted, in this case, the other residents of the community - while the structures that were set on fire were abandoned, the residents lived in fear that the fires could easily spread to their own homes and there was a tremendous amount of anxiety over not knowing who was committing the crimes.

Even though we learn very early on who did it, it is still unclear as to what the motivations were.  The buildings burned were abandoned and the arsonists didn't have insurance policies on them, so money wasn't the motivation. Hesse speculates it was about the intersection of things like poverty, codependence, hope, pride, sexual performance and risk.  The defendants - Charlie and his girlfriend Tonya - led extremely difficult lives. They lived hand to mouth.  Tonya's three children demanded a lot of attention for various reasons (even though all children demand attention).  At the end of the day, while both were ultimately convicted of their crimes, we still don't have a clear answer from them as to their motivations.

I found this book fascinating and very readable.  I couldn't put it down.  Highly recommended.

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