Book Reviews Sociology

What I’ve Been Reading: American Fire by Monica Hesse

One of my favorite genres to read is any kind of true crime non-fiction. I saw a brief review of American Fire in TIME magazine before the book was actually released on July 11th. I was immediately interested in the story and ended up purchasing it not too long after it went on sale.

In 2012 and 2013, a rash of arson fires occurred in Accomack County. This sprawling county is located on the eastern shore of Virginia. It was once a flourishing agricultural area, but is now a sadly typical rural area struggling with the issue of almost entirely losing their most important industry. It is coastal Virginia’s answer to the Rust Belt. American Fire tells the entire story of the arsons committed, with components that are as interesting as they are hard to believe.

The author, Monica Hesse, does a fantastic job of describing Accomack County -both past and present. She provides a tight historical background to the county that isn’t tedious to read. Instead of simply listing historical facts, she weaves in current points about the area relevant to the historical data being presented. It makes the reading much less academic and sets a great infrastructure upon which the book is based. Hesse manages to show how the county was prosperous at one point, yet she does not rely on overt nostalgia. I am always bothered by those who succumb to the Golden Age Fallacy (a complete belief in the “good ol’ days”; conviction that everything was better in the past). Hesse does not rely on this device to paint a picture of early Accomack.  She is also able to document the economic decline of the area without disrespecting the current inhabitants. She writes with excellent style and detail in these sections and they were my favorite chapters to read.

After giving a background of Accomack County, Hesse moves on to give an account from the early fires the whole way through the legal proceedings that were associated with the fires. She tells a crazy, complicated, and confusing love story between two characters from Accomack whose lives take a turn at a very strange angle. If you’re from a small town, you’ll swear you’ve had a beer with these two people at a local dive bar. Side-by-side with the love story, Hesse expertly describes the collective emotion of the county throughout the whole ordeal.

I have read many non-fiction/sociology books that give exhaustive depictions of true events. While I still enjoy a book that gives an emotionless account of a situation in chronological order that is full of dates, statistics, and citations, I much prefer one with strong writing that is able to tell an accurate story with some level of aesthetic concern. American Fire is just that, and is –especially for a fan of the true crime non-fiction genre- a genuine pleasure to read.

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