Peeking my head up from The Secret History to bring you this review of American Fire by Monica Hesse. 🙂
LOVE IS A WEIRD ACT. An Optimistic delusion. A leap of faith and foolishness. Sometimes when it is tested, imperfections that were there from the beginning, lurking deep, can begin to work their way to the surface. Even two people who love each other deeply will always be two people, two souls. You can’t ever completely get in someone else’s head, or in someone else’s heart. It is the greatest tragedy and the greatest beauty of a relationship: that at some level, the person you are closest to will always be a total friggin’ mystery. Maybe the real mystery is why we ever do it at all. It must be something incredible.” – Monica Hesse, American Fire
I normally never start a review with a quote, but maybe I’ve been writing these wrong, because I think that quote serves as quite an intro.
American Fire is a book I stumbled upon over the winter through a fit of boredom – either browsing through Goodreads or Netgalley, I can’t remember, but I do remember setting a mental note for July when it would come out. So July 1st, when I saw it as a Book of the Month selection and I chose it immediately. I love when Book of the Month selects nonfiction!
The synopsis of American Fire is that two people living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, decide to set fires to abandoned houses throughout their county, and reaked havoc on their community. Monica Hesse, the author of this book, was a journalist with (admittedly) nothing to write about and asked her boss if she could go down to Virginia to cover this story.
What Hesse brings is a compelling narrative non fiction, sprinkled with chapters that take a step back from the story and explain the context. This context ranges from the psychology behind arson, to the history of the economy of the Eastern Shore (who knew that Doritos were part of the downfall?), to different state laws which could influence the trial and sentencing for arson.
The overarching story line was told through the lives of the arsonists as well as the firefighters fighting each fire, to give you the full picture of the crime and the damage to the community.
I felt like a learned so much from the story, and enjoyed it all the while.
I find that even though I shouldn’t, I tend to compare books. The comparisons I would make for this is that it was somewhere between The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Deadwake (or any of the others) by Eric Larson. It reminds me of Rebecca Skloot because it truly was the story of a journalist who stumbled upon a story and invested the time and effort to develop a book, and of Eric Larson because, in my opinion, nobody writes narrative non-fiction better.
At the end of the day, I was drawn in to this story, but I was never obsessed the way I was with a Larson book. I learned so much, and those facts and feelings will stay with me – which is kind of the best that you can hope for!
I hope you give this book a shot and let me know what you thought!
Feel Learn Wonder Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Title: American Fire
Author: Monica Hesse
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction