American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Summary & Study Guide

Monica Hesse
This Study Guide consists of approximately 43 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of American Fire.
This section contains 869 words
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American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Summary & Study Guide Description

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: Hesse, Monica. American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia has a history of wealth, but is now a far more desolate rural area. When a string of fires start in the fall of 2013, the fire chiefs and the volunteer members of the fire department all work together to fight them. The arsons, which they assumed would stop each time one occurred, continued for sixty-two counts. The author of this book, Monica Hesse, is a journalist who drives to Accomack County to find out why an admittedly guilty defendant set a string of fires.

The sheriff and police begin to stake out potential targets for the next fire, but are unable to catch the arsonist each time. They set up surveillance cameras too, to no avail. They do not realize yet that there are two arsonists, who would not be caught for months to come. . One of them, Charlie Smith, was always a troublemaker in school, but had been a volunteer firefighter in order to get out of school. He became highly skilled at firefighting, and worked closely with multiple fire chiefs in the area. Tonya Bundick was the other, a regular at a bar named Shuckers. She danced for fun and got a lot of male attention there, though she was often bullied in school when she was younger.

This bar, Shuckers, is where Charlie and Tonya first met. Charlie was addicted to cocaine, and had just broken up with his first wife. He was planning on overdosing that night, but instead fell in love with Tonya. He moved in with her and her two children almost immediately. They decided to run a business together, combining his car repair specialty with her knowledge of clubbing attire in the same storefront. They get engaged, though they have both become deeply unhappy.

Meanwhile, they’re still setting fires. It turns out that they are setting these fires after Tonya initially suggests it, in order to relieve the stress in their relationship and make them both happier by making her happier. After a local church burns down, a man named Matt Hart forms the Eastern Shore Arsonists Hunters, consisting of vigilantes attempting to solve the same problems as the law enforcement. They are unable to find out any more then the police already know. After a prominent old building, Whispering Pines, burns down, the county feels like they lost their history. Everyone is emotionally exhausted, and yet they must keep working to catch the arsonists.

The state troopers redouble their efforts. Though everyone is worried that the arsonists will never be caught, they bring in a team of criminal profilers too. They prepare for questioning.

The pair at Post 6 finally spot the arsonist— they chase him, and spot him climbing into a getaway van. The rest of the law enforcement team catches the van on the street, with Tonya and Charlie inside. Everyone is shocked that these familiar neighborhood faces are the culprits they have spent forty-thousand hours searching for.

When questioned, Charlie admits to starting most of the fires immediately, but stays quiet on the rest. He experienced erectile dysfunction in his relationship, and was afraid that she would remain unsatisfied and leave him. He was so in love with her that he’d do anything for her— even set houses on fire. At the same time, Tonya refused to admit anything when she was questioned. She simply said that she was driving him to Walmart and he got out for no reason, that she didn’t know past that.

Gary Agar, who is the lawyer for the persecution against Tonya, contacts her sister to find out more. He learns that their father was physically abusing both of them in a childhood home filled with fear and starvation. He also realizes that his case relied primarily on Charlie’s testimony, so he had to make sure that Charlie was willing to testify honestly against Tonya in court. She pleads innocent and the full 62 trials are to take place, but Charlie is still in love with her. They have to show him that Tonya no longer loved him, and they succeeded by showing him clear evidence that Tonya was romantically and sexually involved with another man.

In the first trial, they both perform well on the stand. However, the jury is inclined to believe Charlie’s testimony, simply because his manner of speaking conveyed that he was too dumb to lie. The attorneys recommend that Tonya should plead guilty, and she is found guilty. In the second trial, Tonya’s defense brings out a new character witness, a minister. He strengthens her credibility, until the prosecution forces him to admit that he is her boyfriend. She was sentenced to ten and a half years for the first two trials.

At this point, she arranges a deal. She submits a guilty plea for the remainder of the trials, in exchange for seven additional years of jail time— for over seventeen years total. On the other hand, Charlie was only sentenced to fifteen years due to his cooperative attitude.

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