Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 9.18.28 PMThere were buildings that burned down. Some of the buildings that burned down had meant something to people, and their burning was a tragedy. Some of the buildings that burned down were ugly and old. Nobody knew who they even belonged to and why they were still there. Those buildings weren’t missed. A normal person wouldn’t have burned them down, but the fact that [someone] did –well, that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, either. And the people who really made the county, the firefighters and teachers and librarians and police officers, they were all still there. That mattered. (Pg. 232)

In November of 2012, a string of fires started in rural Accomack County, Virginia. It was one, then it was six, then it was over fifty fires. Far too many to be coincidently or naturally occurring. Area investigators were stumped. The strip of Accomack County coastline where the fires took place was a community of under five hundred people. Who could possibly be committing so many crimes of arson in such a tight knit community?

After countless hours of volunteer fire fighting work, police investigations, and amateur arson hunting, the perpetuators were finally caught. But what was uncovered was much more than many anticipated. It all boiled down to one question: What would one really do for love?

For more on American Fire, published by Liveright Publishing Corp. (division of W.W. Norton) in July 2017, continue… 

I’m not certain why I was drawn to this book (aside from its selection as a July Book of the Month Club pick), but I’m interested in psychology and non-fiction and this new release seemed to marry both genres.

However, that said, I found the book wanting. Monica Hesse does a great job interspersing chapters between community individuals, actual fire fighting runs, and the arsonists themselves, so the plot itself isn’t necessarily lacking or boring. In fact, she does a great job humanizing an otherwise boring headline: “Dozens of Virginia Fires, No Suspects.” Not only do readers gain insight into what it’s like to work as a volunteer firefighter in a rural area, but also what its like to live in rural areas when the economy is not what it once was.

For me, this is all-too-real as I live in the Heartland of America where less than 30% of those in my county have an Associate’s degree or higher. Our economy is industry and not much else, most of which has been outsourced to other countries. We’re not dead, but we too are hurting. It’s nice (albeit heartbreaking) to see a reflection of that in a book, arson-related or otherwise.

The fact that the arsonists lit over sixty fires in a rural, Virginia waning county, however, is a bit boring. And with no real motive, I am left upset. The miracle of their arson spree is that no one was hurt. Perhaps, for another reader, this would be the fascinating part—criminal psychology. For me, it screams a life of privilege in all the psychological ways that matter: the arsonists destroyed for no other reason than to destroy. It speaks to their background, yes, but it also just really upsets me. (Yes, I realize this is my privilege coming through, too. Bear with me, please.) People die everyday in myriad ways–firefighters, military soldiers, doctors, police officers–and here people are lighting fires just because they FEEL like it? Thousands of hours were spent on fire fighting, investigation, legal proceedings, etc., and all for what?

I’ll let the book itself explain the outcomes, but suffice it to say that I’m unnerved. There are troubled childhoods, drug habits, small town gossip, and—yes—even a love story. There are many good aspects, and yet… I’m still unnerved.

Perhaps my rating is based more on my annoyance with criminals, which is likely accurate. The book itself did keep my interest, even if it wasn’t a page-turner in terms of actual plot dexterity; it didn’t need to be since all of the plot already happened in 2014 and before.

While I would only rate this book a 2.5 on a 5 point scale, it shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the writing style or the book itself. I would love to see Hesse take on a bit deeper of a topic for her next book. I would certainly read it. She’s a skilled journalist and author, even if this particular book didn’t hit the mark with me.

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