Monday, July 31, 2017

American Fire - Monica Hesse

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing LandBook of the Month has absolutely been killing it with selections recently; I have loved all of my main selections for the past few months, and it's been great to see more nonfiction that isn't in the style of a memoir.  Killers of the Flower Moon was stunning and terrible, and American Fire is sad and evocative and atmospheric.

This is a nonfiction book, accounting a string of arsons that took place on Virginia's Eastern Shore.  Between November and April 1, sixty-seven buildings in Accomack County burned.  (Well, it was more than that, but the sixty-seven were the related ones.)  As readers, we know pretty much from the beginning who is behind the arsons; Hesse puts it all out there right in the beginning, even on the jacket description.  But of course the people of Accomack don't know, and watching them try to figure out who is burning down their county is fascinating, as is watching the building and decaying relationship between the aronists and how it eventually all unravels in court.

Hesse's book definitely falls into the category of literary nonfiction; it reads like a story, alternating between a chapter or two about the fire departments, police, etc. trying to figure out the arsons, and a chapter about the arsonists themselves.  Hesse uses words to, stroke by stroke, paint the picture of Accomack County, accessed at the north by a road that passes by a gas station sporting a sign, "The South Starts Here."  It's a county that has largely been left behind by the rest of the United States; once the richest rural county in the US, it's now one of the poorest.  Its main employers are Tyson and Purdue.  The fire departments are entirely volunteer, so dispatchers need to call four in order to make sure enough people show up to fight each fire.  And there's no municipal water supply, so the fire departments have to bring their own water with them, and if they run out, their only chances to reload are sometimes ponds.  It's a completely different place from the urban settings that most of the country inhabits, a place that almost felt like it could have been the setting of a Sookie Stackhouse novel if they took place on the Eastern Shore instead of in Lousiana.

It's not a long book, and the narrative style is so readable that I absolutely devoured it in just a couple of hours.  But it shows wonderfully how no single factor in Accomack County or in the arsonists' lives caused the arsons.  Being poor and depressed doesn't make you set fires, and if you do set fires, it doesn't mean that you'll get away with it...but the societal fabric of Accomack County contributed immensely to it.  And, as Hesse points out, it could have happened elsewhere, too.  Such a fascinating look into this county, the arsons, the investigation, all of it.  Highly recommended.

5 stars out of 5.

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