The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.
A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.
I went into this book blind, knowing nothing about the Accomack fires, and Hesse is a surefooted and well-spoken guide. She spent months living on the Eastern Shore and it shows in the way she paints the community and pulls us into the crime. While the culprit is pointed out early on the whydunit aspects kept me reading – what would drive someone to do this? What does it mean when you’ll do literally anything for someone?
The reporting and particulars of the case are handled exceptionally well, with the crimes, apprehension, interrogation, and court aspects carrying equal weight. However, I was hoping that Hesse would spend more time digging into the social and economic trends that led to Ammomack’s fall in the first place. Many factors are briefly touched on – the importance of the railroad, the rise of chicken farming – but it never gets to the point of an overarching theme.
Even though I was hoping for more thematic heft American Fire is a fascinating look at what happens when you find an arsonist in your midst.