American Fire – Reader’s Guide

“Recommended Summer reading by TIME, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, and Elle.

“A breathtaking feat of reportage, American Fire combines procedural with love story, redefining American tragedy for our time.American Fire

“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. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. 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.

“The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie’s confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn’t lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other’s inspiration and escape…until they weren’t.

“Though it’s hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it’s been drained of its industry―agriculture―as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. 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” (Amazon summary).



  • What do you do when you’re out of ideas?



Chapter 1: Charge that Line

  • What do you do if you find yourself warned of a fire?
  • What consequences exist of a burning, abandoned house?
  • How do emergencies interrupt the normal flow of life?
  • Why are people attracted to tragedy?
  • What motivates someone to light fires?

Chapter 2: The South Starts Here

  • How do isolated cultures develop differently than the main culture?
  • How do locals intimidate newcomers and vis a versa?
  • What are the pros and cons of modern life such as access and railroad to a community?
  • What are the consequences and results of an economic boom?
  • How does history of the area impact the story?

Chapter 3: Orange in the Sky

  • What is the trickle effect of the big corporations?
  • How does precision aid firefighters?
  • Compare and contrast fires to warfare such as Bagdad?
  • What precautions and plans would you put into place to prevent another fire?

Chapter 4: Charlie

  • How does Charlie’s origins haunt him?
  • How did George ignoring Charlie’s misdeeds lead to his demise?
  • What does Charlie’s devotion as a father say about him?
  • What caused Charlie’s elation each time he received an emergency call?

Chapter 5: Monomaniac Incendiaire

  • What is the motivation for arson?
  • Why would researchers be interested in studying arsonists?
  • Why are women more apt to set fires for revenge?
  • Why would arsonists also be firefighters?

Chapter 6: Tonya

  • What purposes is there to knowing Tonya’s background?
  • How does social status in high school differ from adulthood?

Chapter 7: Like a Ghost

  • What would be the first thoughts to go through Lois’ mind?
  • How do you handle unfriendly neighbors?
  • Why would the arsonist loosen the chickens?
  • Why were the fires fascinating to the public?
  • How would the arsonist feel to be compared to a ghost?
  • How do law enforcers fight a ghost?
  • Has technology robbed people of a sense of community? Why or why not?

Chapter 8: Tell Us What You Know About That

  • What training does a criminal profiler require?
  • If you were investigating the fires how would you do it?

Chapter 9: Charlie and Tonya

  • Why would they reveal so much about themselves to each other on a first date?
  • Do Charlie and Tonya meet the arsonist’s profile? Why or why not?
  • Why did Tony protect herself from Charlie? Keeping her past hidden?
  • Why did they make the proposal a public affair?

Chapter 10: Schrodinger’s Evidence

  • How would the arsonists react to seeing increased patrol?
  • What benefit would there be to a community Facebook page?
  • Why would the drug task force be asked to participate?
  • What would law enforcement gain by setting up road blocks?

Chapter 11: The Eastern Shore and Arsonist Hunters

  • Why would Tonya participate on the Facebook page?
  • Why are mysteries so attractive to people?
  • What types of conspiracy theories would be generated by a serial arsonist?
  • What are the pros and cons of a civilian posse?

Chapter 12: I’ve Seen Enough

  • How did the fires cause neighbors to turn on neighbors?
  • How would you protect yourself if you lived in Accomack during this era?
  • What would an arson algorithm look like?
  • Why hadn’t Charlie and Tonya been caught? Lucky or masterminds?

Chapter 13:

  • What emotions would course through responders seeing a historical site aflame?
  • What specific pressures would be on Beall being in charge of this location?

Chapter 14: Tonya and Charlie

  • Why would they need security?
  • How would you have helped the troubled teen?
  • How can problems seem overwhelming?
  • Why do finances strain relationships?
  • What would you do to make someone happy?

Chapter 15: They’re Not Hunters at All

  • How would a pause in the fires impact the profile?
  • How does arson provide power?

Chapter 16: I Didn’t Light Them All

  • What would it take to sit and wait for the fie to ignite?
  • How would the sergeant feel seeing Charlie?
  • What costs did the arsonists cause?
  • Why would Bryan not take to his brother again?

Chapter 17: Someday They’ll Go Down Together

  • How do Bonnie and Clyde compare to Charlie and Tonya?
  • Why doesn’t love transcend crime?

Chapter 18: Everybody Has a Reason for Why They Do Things in Life

  • Why would Charlie be embarrassed?
  • Why would Tonya send Charlie into a set up?
  • Why do we need to understand the motives of crimes?
  • Why did Charlie change his responses to no comment?

Chapter 19: I Can’t Tell You Something I Don’t Know

  • Why would police officers not believe they’d caught the arsonists beyond the date?
  • What are the differences between Tonya’s interrogation and Charlie’s interrogation?
  • What sacrifices do we make for our children?

Chapter 20: Midnight Without Makeup

  • Why would people want to be seen as related to the arsonists?

Chapter 21: The Broken Things

  • What challenges would exist in prosecuting someone you knew?
  • What challenges would come from defending Charlie and Tonya?
  • How would the community feel knowing their neighbor was the arsonist?

Chapter 22: Time to Wake Up

  • What should be the sentence for Charlie’s crimes?
  • What was the danger in having inmates talk to each other?

Chapter 23: Burned

  • How would Burned impact the trial?

Chapter 24: We’d Done It Before

  • What interest did the public have in this case?
  • What evidence could be sued against Charlie and Tonya?
  • Why did Charlie think by lighting the fires he was protecting Tonya? Why not just stop?
  • Are drugs a viable excuse? Why or why not?

Chapter 25: The Came Out of Everywhere

  • Is Tonya convincing? Why or why not?
  • Why did she plead guilty?

Chapter 26: Moral Turpitude

  • What was the purpose of the second trial?
  • Did the sentence satisfy the crime?

Chapter 27: What Happened Next?

  • Who told the truth and why?
  • Why did she want a new attorney?

Chapter 28: It’s Over

  • Why did she change her strategy?


By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband and spirited long-haired miniature dachshunds. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including MBTI Learning Styles: A Practical Approach, The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.


Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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