Fiction Review: American War
Book By Book
I tend to save December reading for some of the books on my shelf that garnered the most praise and accolades, as well as gifts from last Christmas that I haven’t gotten to yet! With a half dozen award nominations and on many Best of 2017 lists, American War by Omar El Akkad fit both criteria. I just finished this stunning fictional debut last night and couldn’t wait to write about it.
American War is a historical account of the fictional (I hope) second American Civil War, fought from 2074 through 2095 over the issue of using fossil fuels. The U.S. federal government outlawed their use, while a group of southeastern states decided they’d rather secede than comply – but the U.S. government wouldn’t let them. What followed was a war like no other, fought with both official military and a wide assortment of revolutionaries (aka terrorists), plus the use of biological weapons. Everything else about the U.S. changed dramatically as well. Both coasts are underwater (causing a massive inland influx of the population), Florida is now a sea, and a large portion of the Southwest is under Mexico’s rule. All of these things are massive changes and events, affecting the whole world, but this novel focuses in on one family in particular, the Chestnuts. Sara T., known since childhood as Sarat, remembers when her family was whole and happy, living in a shipping container home next to the Mississippi Sea, not too far from where New Orleans used to be. She played with her twin sister, Dana, and her older brother, Simon, on the banks of the Mississippi. Then her father was killed in the beginning of the war (through no fault of his own), and as the war on the Texas front crept closer to their home, her mother was forced to leave their home with the children for a refugee camp in Mississippi called Camp Patience. Just six years old when they moved there, Sarat and her siblings grew up under terrible conditions in the camp, living in tents in the mud. As adolescence neared, a mysterious man took Sarat under his wing, and she soaked up the attention and education he provided. Eventually, though, Sarat became an instrument of the war and played a surprisingly large role in it.
This book is powerful and moving and thought-provoking on so many levels. I loved the way the author took a huge national event with international repercussions (one character says, “Everyone fights an American war”) and narrowed it down to the perspective of a single family – and often a single girl/woman – to see its effects close up in a very personal way. The details of the war and the state of the United States are eerily reminiscent of issues that we already see on the news every day in the present, so it is a chilling tale that feels like it could really happen. On a personal level, although Sarat grows up to do some horrible things, it’s impossible not to like her and feel empathy for her and all that she and her family have gone through. American War explores the effects of war on both individuals and communities in a way that is completely immersive and engrossing. Although this was a bleak read for the holiday season, it does end on a note of hope for the next generation, though it is still clear that the xenophobia that led to the war and all that followed it are still alive and well. This was a powerful, imaginative (yet all too realistic), and compelling debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Omar El Akkad comes up with next.
333 pages, Alfred A. Knopf
Listen to a sample of the book on audio. I read this one in print, but from the sample, it sounds like it is also excellent on audio.