American War by Omar El Akkad
Rating: 4.5 stars
I had to think on this book for a while. It’s definitely an ambitious work and more plausible than I would prefer given today’s political climate. Akkad does an amazing job imagining what the future Southern U.S. might be like given the circumstances of this story. The disappearing coastlines and state divisions feel real in his book, as do the divisions behind the second American Civil War.
The story starts at the beginning of the second civil war in 2074, when Sarat Chestnut is only 6 years old. After the death of her father, who was trying to get a work permit to move his family from what is left of rural Louisiana to the North, her mother takes Sarat, her twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon to a refugee camp in Mississippi near the Tennessee border.
Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia make up the Free Southern States. Those states want to secede from the North to avoid a ban on fossil fuels intended to help stave off the already critical effects of global warming. The South wants to be free to continue to use fossil fuels, even though they will run out in the near future. South Carolina would have been included in those states, but the Union government released a virus to destroy some of the population, hoping that this atrocity would scare other rebellious states into line. However, the virus was more powerful than intended, and the state had to be walled off to prevent further contamination.
Sarat is chosen by an older former soldier named Gaines to be groomed as an extremist for the Southern cause. You can watch how extremism is bred through the careful manipulation and control of information, and the creation of an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. Any innocents killed by Southerners were unfortunate casualties for the cause, while those killed by the Union army were cruelly slaughtered by the inhuman and sadistic Union soldiers. But you understand how easy it is for Sarat to see the world through this lens because she has spent most of her life directly affected by a war fought in her homeland. Her fellow refugees at the camp have had their entire lives turned upside down when few battles are fought on Union soil.
Since we experience the war through Sarat’s perspective, we don’t get to see a more balanced view of the conflict or broader scope of the country during this time. Akkad handles this limitation by weaving in “historical documents” expertly throughout the novel. There are interview transcripts with the War Office commanders after the war ends, speeches by the assassinated Union president, and other historical accounts of life in the Union and the South during that time.
While you observe Sarat’s inevitable transformation into an extremist for her side step by tragic step, I still hated to see how her story unfolded. Her worldview grew more limited and she grew colder to protect herself from the harsh realities of her life. Her story takes several tragic turns before it ends in even more hatred and heartbreak. There is one bright spot for her in the form of her childhood best friend Marcus, who eventually becomes a Union soldier. While she can somehow find compassion for him, she is not able to show any to anyone else in her life.
This book was amazing, but it is not an easy read. If you are looking for something light or something to take your mind off of the chaos of our current political climate, this is not for you. If you are willing to stick this out through the bitter end, it will be worth it.