Friday, May 12, 2017

American War

American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina seceded, calling themselves collectively "The Free Southern State" in response to legislation prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in the United States. A secessionist suicide bomber killed the president in late 2073 and the Southern states declared themselves independent just under a year later. The war lasted for around 20 years and on the day of reunification a plague was deliberately let loose at the capital in Colombia, MO the effects of which lasted another decade. The terrorist responsible remains unknown, which of course means the main character of the novel must be that person. (I don't think that's a spoiler, as it seemed perfectly obvious to me from the beginning.)

Our protagonist is Sara T. Chestnut, called Sarat. As the novel opens she is 6 years old, living in a shipping container with her parents, twin sister Dana, and older brother Simon in Louisiana, which is outside of the Free Southern State (FSS) but more-or-less aligned with it. As Sara grows up her situation worsens, beginning with the death of her father and the family's escape to Camp Patience, a refugee settlement in the FSS where the family lives in a tent for 6 years. Sarat only leaves after a horrible massacre by the Blues (the Northerners) rips her remaining family apart. With the compensation received, the remainder of her family is able to finally settle in a house in another part of the FSS.

Throughout all of this, Sarat remains a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. Although the war began over the use of fossil fuels, she never once expressed an opinion on the issue. She used fossil fuels and when she was running her household she insisted on using this old technology, but I think it was more out of her allegiance with the South than any personal opinion on the issue. Her views on the war seemed to be that she was from the South and had been hurt by the North and therefore hated them. There was little nuance or real understanding of the issues outside of her own personal experiences. Confusingly, despite her allegiance to the South late in the novel there's a part where she says, "Fuck the South and everything it stands for." This was literally the only time she expressed anything negative towards the South and I have no clue how it fits in with her worldview, since the author doesn't let us inside her head.

Throughout the book Sarat is stubborn and rather bone-headed, convinced she knows more and is smarter than everyone else. She didn't want the war to be over and I don't know why except that she seemed like she wanted to be miserable and to suffer. It's true that she went through a lot, but so did everybody else. I never could figure out why she was supposed to be so special. The lack of insight into her character was frustrating and, unfortunately, a bit typical of literary fiction.

The whole story is from the point of the South, yet I couldn't help but see them as in the wrong. Is that intentional, or am I just bringing in my own biases based on being a liberal New Englander? It's hard to tell, but it was interesting to think about as I read. I'll admit there have been times I wished the South would secede as that part of country seems to have a completely different culture and worldview than the part where I live. (I suppose there are advantages to being all one country, but I do wonder how different it would be if we were instead a number of very small individual countries, like Europe.) I found the idea of the Second Civil War compelling, and the way it played out was as good as any dystopia, though I do wish we got more about how people fared outside of the South. From the viewpoint of the FSS, living in the North was much easier but I don't know the details. Was it just safer or were they living in comparative luxury?

I gave this book 3.5 stars because I was unable to get to know or understand the main character around whom the novel centered. Otherwise, it was pretty strong. El Akkad's writing style and world-building were quite good and I can see why this book garnered such high praise in the reviews. The author is originally from Cairo, but has also lived in Qatar and Canada before moving to the United States, which gives him a pretty unique perspective and I'd really love to know how his experiences in these different political climates has shaped his views and contributed to this novel.

Have you read American War? What other brand new books have you read recently and want to recommend?

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