by Omar El Akkad
American War features one of those characters that will make you choose sides; or at the very least, will make you examine, with some introspection, if you would arrive at the same choices Sarat Chestnut had. The author established one goal in his book from the get-go. He aims to highlight the difficult, and often, deadly life of those displaced by war and strife. There are countries in the world that have only ever known this type of everyday struggle all their lives. And that is what was in my mind long after I finished this book. The inconceivable reality of not having a home and living with fear day in and day out. Literally fleeing from sure death.
The novel tells the story of an America divided by Civil War once more. The year is 2075. Climate change has obliterated practically all coastal states. Florida was but a distant memory, and the Federal seat of the government now resides in Ohio. Due to environmental catastrophe, fossil fuel was outlawed. Bringing forth the beginning of the end of the United States we once knew. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede to become the Free Southern State; and South Carolina, which spearheaded the rebellion, is now walled – quarantined due to a disease that the federal government unleashed in an effort to stomp the revolt. I can barely comprehend outlawing the use of fuel could be the beginning of the demise of America. Afterall, they are faced with even more disparaging problems that push either side in their corners. But I digress. This is not my story to tell. I’m only along for the ride.
The story begins as we meet our narrator. A scholar who has a second-hand knowledge of the war from a series of journals left in his capable hands. We would know that he is an old man, dying of cancer and was using the opportunity to confess his ‘sins’, as it were. Here, we meet the Chestnuts, we find the head of the family on his way to the North to find a better life for them but finds his demise when he was killed in a terrorist blast. With the war advancing, the mother had no choice but to pack up what’s left of her family and flee to a refugee city where they would live most of their lives. As was in the first Civil War, the Blues are from the North and the Reds, from the South. A testament, if you will, to the growing divisiveness of the political climate in the States.
Sarat’s story unfolds while she was at the refugee camp. Bolstered by the consecutive tragedies that happened in her life, and coerced, rather easily by the powers that be, Sarat became a tool for the rebellion. The war was Sarat’s vengeful playground. Here, you’ll see an account of how insurgents are created. Their motivations, triumphs and downfall. As well, torture, in explicit detail. So if you’ve a weak stomach for that line of reading, you might find yourself skipping those parts – which is exactly what I did.
Though I have rated this book four stars, I feel it failed on a few aspects. The novel is set in the future but hardly conveys the passage of time. Besides the changes to the American landscape and political climate, this dystopian world is a definite take-off from your usual reads. I sympathized with Sarat’s plight deeply. I understood her whys and hows. I felt for her even more when she was incarcerated and tortured in the hands of her jailers. But she did not break. She was a fiercely determined creature whos very own person was shaped by a war that’s seemingly endless.