Book Review: "American Fire" by Monica Hesse
5/5 - All is not fair in love and arson...
A well-structured and well-written novel regarding the fires to rage across small-town Virginia, USA - Monica Hesse proves her ability to make every point of the case, fires and background a point of interest and something you require in order to put together these chain of unfortunate events. From the extreme power plays, to the exhausted volunteer fire crew and even to the history of this 'vanishing land', Monica Hesse leaves out no detail in making us understand that this book is about more than just starting fires and that this crime was about far more than just arson.
Monica Hesse makes no attempt to hide who was responsible for the crimes, but does in fact, hide the reason why until we come to the court case in the latter third of the book. Throughout the text, she establishes the background to the person and place, leaving out the crucial context in order to not only keep the reader interested in the book's course, but also because the context is so complex that it would not make much sense without the rest being confirmed first. Hesse's attempt to sort through these events, histories, biographical details and characters come to a book that makes perfect sense and yet, leaves us with a sense of how we could never really know what was going through the mind of the dominant force in order to complete this madness.
I believe that the most complex historical aspect of this book is when the arsons are described as something political through the fact that these structures are normally old and abandoned and so, burning them down seemed to the townspeople like burning down a part of the history of the county. Even the 'whispering pines' structure and the one which is described as a health and safety hazard; when they are burned down, it seems to be a loss rather than a move into the modern age. Even if nobody was hurt and nobody was killed, the tragedy of burning history is extreme and it really hurts the reader to see this disappear up in flames and can never be restored.
When we come to the two characters and the court cases, we get this power play of dominance in a relationship and the bending of truth and lies. The question of whether love can blind the individual to do something upon the dominant force of another seems to be a common theme upon American couple-crime history from Bonnie and Clyde to the Barbie and Ken Killers - all of which Monica Hesse covers in order to give historical and social context to her point. It becomes more and more of a point upon the arrest of the two individuals who committed these arsons. When the court case unfolds, there is a clear bias against one individual in order to make a repeat offender seem incomplete and incoherent in his tale, whereas the woman seems to make herself seem like a 'loving force' in the relationship. Both of these things brings in the argument of whether all those who go to jail are really dishonest in nature since the repeat offender never actually lied about anything, confessing to starting the fires and confessing that his girlfriend too, helped out. Monica Hesse then makes a point of referring back to the past and about how the different circumstances of the two criminals, unfolding these sections of how dominance impacts the force of a certain crime.
Monica Hesse seems to question about whether buildings or people make the history of a county in which the buildings may be old, but the last names are even older, separating the 'come heres' who have moved into the county from the 'born heres' - who can (and I paraphrase) find their names in 300 year-old documents regarding the county. The question seems to flick back and forth from the firemen at the beginning of the book to the court case in which the 'Bundick' name is so frequented, it seems like an advantage to tell the reader whether or not these are relative to one of the criminals.
All in all, it is a complex book in which fires may have been started, love may have been complete and incomplete and history may have been seen and destroyed. But all in all, the book is about looking into a once steady county who lived so solitary once upon a time, and were given a wake-up call to modernise and open the door. The wake-up call may have been engulfed in flames but it brought a community together. And maybe that's what was important.
“The county would grow used to hearing the wail of sirens in the middle of the night, the sound of engines and tankers crunching over gravel. The county would see landmarks go up in flames and neighbours eye one another with suspicion at the grocery store. At night, the roads would transform into a sea of checkpoints and cop cars; citizens trying to get home while Accomack turned into a police state and the county lit up around them. The county went about its business. The county burned down.”
- American Fire by Monica Hesse