Manafonistas

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Monica Hesse: American Fire – Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

 

 
 
 
A captivating narrative about arson, persistent law enforcers, an unlikely romantic relationship, and a courtroom drama.

The setting is Accomack County, a lightly populated area of the Eastern Shore “separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay and a few hundred years of cultural isolation.” Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat, 2016) knew almost nothing about the economically depressed, desolate county when she first visited there in 2013 after hearing about a series of regularly occurring arsons of abandoned buildings.

Eventually, the number of similar-seeming arsons would top out at 67. Though there were no reported deaths or serious injuries, the burning buildings were exhausting the lightly staffed volunteer fire departments in the county and consuming the resources of local and state law enforcement agencies.

For nearly half a year, police mounted sophisticated stakeouts hoping to catch the arsonist in the act, but they consistently failed to identify a suspect. Even a profiler, who, it turned out, accurately predicted the neighborhood where the arsonist resided, did not see his lead pan out. Then, finally, a stakeout at an unoccupied home paid off. Hesse reveals the culprit early in the book—two of them, actually, Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick (“Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore”), who lived together romantically along with Bundick’s sons. Local police knew the culprits personally; Smith had even served as a volunteer firefighter, as did his brother.

As Hesse constructs her narrative, the surprises arrive in the manner of the arrest, the motives for the fires, and the outcomes of the multiple trials. Throughout, the author offers a nuanced portrait of a way of life unknown to most who have never resided on or visited the Eastern Shore.

A true-crime saga that works in every respect.
 
– Kirkus Review


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