Friday, July 28, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: American War by Omar El Akkad

A book that features an imagined dystopia in which the U.S. is going through another civil war? Um...okay, sure. As uncomfortable and unsettling as reading such a story can be, especially given our current political climate, I decided to go ahead and pick up American War by Omar El Akkad. It is another one that seemed to be making its rounds on Goodreads, so I gave in to my own curiosity.

The Situation: Sarat Chestnut once lived with her family in a house by the Mississippi Sea. The year was 2074 when her father left home in an attempt to secure the family a place in the north. The U.S. had just recently began fighting its second Civil War, but instead of slavery serving as the default reason for the disagreement between the north and the south, this time it was the use of fossil fuel. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia make up the Free Southern States, while South Carolina remains a quarantine zone due to the outbreak of a deadly virus after a terrorist attack. With fighting so close to home in the Battles of East Texas, and the disappearance of her husband, Sarat's mother decides to move her family somewhere safer, somewhere they will be taken care of and provided for. It is in Camp Patience in the northern part of Mississippi where Sarat will spend the remainder of her adolescence, and where her life will continue on a path from which there will be no coming back.

The Problem: Of course, war is an ugly thing, no matter which side you are on. Camp Patience may provide relative safety, but it is still incredibly close to the Blue border. If that were not enough, there is also the tension between the Reds and the rebels, who are supposed to be on the same side, but cannot seem to get along. Sarat's fearlessness and independence sets her apart from the rest of the children in Camp Patience, bringing her to the attention of a mysterious and well-dressed foreigner. After a massacre kills of most of the residents of the camp, this foreigner will take this opportunity to turn Sarat into his own weapon, one that the Blues will never see coming. As the war goes on, Sarat becomes smarter, harder, tougher, and more vengeful. It is this thirst for vengeance that the mysterious outsider will feed on, while aiming to hurt more than just the opponents of the free southerners.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a novel that takes place mostly between the years 2074-2095, during the America's second Civil War. Told from the point of view of a third party, whose identity is not revealed until near the end of the book, it is the story of Sarat Chestnut, her family, and how she became an important and key figure in the war. It was tempting to label this book as science fiction since it is set in the future, but I decided against it as there is little beyond that to recommend it for that category. As the novel unfolds, Sarat will go from being a fairly typical happy and carefree child, to a hardened and dour teenager, to a vengeful soldier, a broken prisoner, and finally, a broken and nearly empty shell of a person. In between chapters, interviews and documents concerning the war are inserted, giving different angles and perspectives to the war that Sarat would never have, or even consider. It is the story of the potential journey one child can take when their country is at war. And while Sarat would like to imagine that she is making these decisions for herself - choosing her own destiny and for what and whom she would like to fight - and that her mysterious tutor sees something special in her, the truth is actually far less complimentary. Those who side with neither the north nor the south are fighting for their own interest, looking out for anyone willing to do their bidding under the guise of exacting their own justice. It is a story that Egyptian-born El Akkad would certainly be able to imagine and tell as an award-winning journalist who has covered stories from the war in Afghanistan, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

My Verdict: As I mentioned in the introduction, this book was uncomfortable to read at times. For one, while it is set in the future, it is not set all that far in the future. If any of this were to happen, it is plausible that people who are alive now in 2017 could potentially live to see it. Second, it is not a civil war occurring in some far off land that a citizen of the U.S. would have to take a plane to visit. States that we can drive to would be closing their borders against each other, and deploying troops to fight fellow citizens. Yeah, it's scary. And oftentimes, books that imagine a future where the U.S. has turned against itself feel like they are pointing a finger, but this one does not feel that way. It also does not feel like it takes sides. El Akkad takes an innocent girl and makes her the center of this story, and the unfortunate product of a problem she did nothing to create. The book could be taken as a warning, but ultimately, it is a story exploring the nasty effects of war.

Favorite Moment: When Sarat shaves her head after completing a dare that no other child would have had the courage to complete, but completing it will still earns her unending teasing and ridicule.

Favorite Character: There are none righteous here. Nope, not even one.

Recommended Reading: The only other books I have read that imagine the U.S. being broken up by war and fighting are from the the young adult genre. Both The Hunger Games and the Legend trilogies involve a country torn apart by in-fighting, with some areas suffering more than others.

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