Eastern Shore Arson

Two serial arsonists and the community devastated by their five-month spree.

Liveright Publishing, $26.95

As a feature writer for the Washington Post, Monica Hesse knows a good story when she hears one. So, as she sat in the Accomack County Courthouse scribbling notes while a local mechanic pled guilty to 67 counts of arson, her ears pricked up when the defense attorney mentioned a behind-the-scenes document explaining the defendant’s actions. Curious as to why these facts weren’t brought out in court, Hesse got ahold of the document herself. What she discovered was astounding. The defendant, Charlie Smith, had not acted alone. He had set the fires with his fiancé, Tonya Bundick. Female arsonists are all but unheard of, and Hesse knew almost immediately that to do this story justice, it would have to be a book.

The result is American Fire, a story that Hesse describes as “an emotional mystery.” Far from a typical “whodunit”—the opening pages reveal who committed the arsons and how many fires they set—this book is more of a “whydunit.” 

“In Charlie’s mind, the reason why he did this was clear,” Hesse explains. “The reason, he said, was to make Tonya happy. But why did arsons make Tonya happy? Why did she do it? So to me it’s really an emotional mystery of how two contributing members of society can become the greatest arsonists in the state of Virginia, and what has to fall apart in your life and what events have to be set off in order to make that happen.”

After the glimpse of what’s to come, Hesse backtracks to the first fire and walks us through the actions of the first responders in pulse-pounding narration. We’re right there when beepers go off and volunteer firefighters from Parksley and Bloxom roar off toward their stations; as three 2,500-gallon tankers (Accomack County doesn’t have fire hydrants stocked with municipal water) roll up to the scene of the fully-involved fire “cracking like a whip” and roaring loudly. We’re there as the blaze reaches its “turning point,” tendrils of smoke transforming into ribbons of steam from water evaporating on smoldering wood. Before this victory can be celebrated, we learn that another fire has been set that same night. And then another. And now everyone is in on the secret—this was no accident.

To lay the story out properly, Hesse knew she’d have to delve into the minds of everyone involved. Except for a previous visit to Chincoteague, Hesse had never spent time on the Eastern Shore—that low, flat finger of land jutting between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Residents are friendly to outsiders, but keep to themselves regarding personal matters and “dirty laundry.” So Hesse decided to become a part-time resident herself. Taking a leave of absence from the Post, she rented a house for three months. “I went to high school football games, fried-chicken fundraisers, town meetings, and things like that,” Hesse says. “When folks were able to see that I wasn’t leaving and that I was not just doing a fly-by-night, stick-a-recorder-in-their-faces kind of interview, but that I really wanted to learn what it was like to live on the Eastern Shore during that deeply strange time, and I could only do it with their voices, then people were really open.”

Hesse tried fruitlessly to speak with the arsonists and get their side of the story. Then one morning, she says, “I’d just gotten out of the shower and I was in my towel when the phone rang. I thought it was a telemarketer, so I was pretty brisk with the person on the phone. But then he said ‘this is Charlie.’ And when I realized who it was, I was just flying around looking for something to write on. I ended up taking notes of our first conversation on a roll of paper towels with a magic marker. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this was the only call I’d ever get. As it turned out, we talked a lot.”

Hesse also embedded with the Tasley firefighters, and was just as dogged in interviewing federal officials. The result of her dedication? American Fire sings with authenticity. Hesse expertly animates everyone involved, placing you in the midst of this beleaguered county. 

“Here were the arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades,” she writes,  “whether in the Midwestern Rust Belt or the Southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia. Underrepresented in television shows and media. Left behind when industries changed or factories moved. Residents in places like these represented the ‘real America’ that national politicians always seemed to talk about when they wanted votes. … This was not the story of Accomack County. This was the story of America.”

American Fire will hold you breathless and spark your curiosity. Hesse illuminates much, but leaves even more sheathed in smoke for you to discover with your own imagination. 

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