21 July 2018

American Fire, by Monica Hesse

My husband and I lived in Virginia Beach for a short time, and we would frequently travel up and down the 23-mile bridge on US 13 to get over to Annapolis, and many a time I made the drive alone for work. I preferred when my husband was driving because I am one of those people who love gazing at passing towns, wondering about the people who live there. And the Eastern Shore of Virginia is beautiful, and seemingly quiet. Unfortunately, we never stopped, even though we planned to. The next time I'm back in Virginia, you can bet I will stop, even if it's just the jam and fruit stand on the side of the road, or to take a picture of an aging motel. I remember one having a funky art deco vibe (I'm still trying to find out if the Whispering Pines Motel was off of US 13 or another road). Either way, if you look up the Virginia map, you'll find a hidden segment of the Commonwealth  of Virginia that is right across a bridge and a part that no one ever thinks of. Most assume it's part of Maryland.

I'm so glad this local library featured this book, all the way down here in Florida. I happened to walk by the shelves while my four-year-old son tore through to the kids' section. I obviously had to check it out because it was about THOSE fires.

I remember when it first started and thought how random they were, how they would sprout up. No one was ever hurt and they were usually old houses or buildings, abandoned for some time. Of course, rumor had it that it was just a bunch of kids, because hey, kids in the middle of nowhere always get blamed for stuff like this. Then, after one fire after another started, the news became real. There was an arsonist in the area. And then, when all the fires fizzled out and the highs and lows of watching the news concluded after about six months, one woman and one man were arrested. A couple, supposedly madly in love, were an arsonist pair. Charlie had previous infractions with the law as a recovering addict, and Tonya really had nothing on her record. They both had their own businesses and were trying to make a life together, but something made them do this. Although Tonya is adamant that she had nothing to do with it, they were both charged, and Tonya was looked as the one with all the ideas. Together, they completely freaked out the area, with everyone wondering which building was next. 

No one ever really understands the amount of man hours and dollars that go into catching a suspect, with trying to profile, stake out, and call on resources from all over the area, from other law enforcement to professors. Monica Hesse, the author, spent this time with each individual reviewing those items, and it's clear she has much respect for the work they did to catch this very oddly-paired Bonnie and Clyde arsonist team that made horrible choices that still have not been understood. Since Charlie was the only who talked to law enforcement and admitted to everything, details are really only from him; Tonya kept herself aloof and closed off, so it was easy to pin her as their ringleader. Charlie wasn't creative enough to come up with good lies, so he just told it as it was, and Tonya, with her way with words, and her quick poetry posts on Facebook, made it crafty and bizarre by staying silent and maintaining her innocence.

I don't read a lot of true crime or non-fiction books and this one was awesome, so I started getting nosey and probably thinking too much. I wonder what would have happened if a woman interrogated Tonya. If a woman who had it all together, and acted like Tonya couldn't possibly have been the one with the ideas, who would give credit to Charlie. Would that have threatened Tonya's ego and would she have confessed? Tonya seemed confident enough to manipulate people, maybe bored with life, or annoyed in her relationship with Charlie that I believe if a woman had questioned her, and gave credit to Charlie, Tonya may very well have gotten angry by a confident female officer and just spilled the truth to gain the credit.

And then, to add more interest, an anonymous book, Burned, by Z. Jasmine BelFord happened to be published on Amazon. It came out while Tonya was out on bail. It was about a couple, not named Tonya and Charlie, but named... Sonya and Harley. It took place in Accolake County, not Accomac County. Yeah... I don't think it's a stretch to assume Tonya wrote it. And then because I'm fascinated by it all, I called the main number for the publishing company and the call center representative said that the author account was in the name of "Mr. Dickerson." Wouldn't you know it, there is a Frank Dickerson in this whole story, and he happened to be Tonya's only character witness during her trial. Interesting, huh?

I bought the book. I'm reading it now. It's got a similar sense of Tonya's poems every few chapters and so far is solely from the perspective of after "Sonya" was arrested.

This was an interesting book and I'm probably more into it because I lived in Virginia Beach when it happened and I remember the news reports. I wish this book included a map with a pin for where all the fires occurred, and I still want to know why Accomac County and Accomack the city are spelled the way they were. Enjoy and read away! It is fascinating.

About the Author (from her website)
Monica Hesse is the national bestselling author of the true crime love story American Fire and the Edgar Award-winning young adult historical mystery novel Girl in the Blue Coat, which has been translated into a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the American Booksellers Association's Indies Choice Award. She is a feature writer for the Washington Post, where she has covered royal weddings, dog shows, political campaigns, Academy Awards ceremonies, White House state dinners, and some events that felt like a mixture of all of the above. She has talked about these stories, and other things, on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, CSPAN, FOX and NPR, and she has been a winner of the Society for Feature Journalism's Narrative Storytelling award, and a finalist for a Livingston Award and a James Beard Award. Monica lives in Maryland. with her husband and a brainiac dog.

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