American War – Omar El Akkad

About the Book

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually, Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.”

352 pages (hardcover)
Published on April 4, 2017
Published by Knopf
Author’s webpage
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This audiobook was a library loan. Yay libraries!

I’m going to drop another unpopular opinion on you fine people. I love dystopian settings, but I get really tired of the sort of cute-hard dystopian YA books. I mean, they are enjoyable and can be very well done, but when I typically look for dystopian, I want the grimdark kind that makes me hurt just thinking about it. I like the ones that are darker than dark.

Friends, I really enjoy carnage.

Enter American War. Really, you just need to know two things about this book: One, it’s amazing. Two, it’s daaaaaaaaark. Oh, and if you want to add a spontaneous third point, the narrator for the audiobook is fantastic.

American War tells the story of the Chestnut family, though it mostly focuses on Sarat and her metamorphosis. Anyway, the Chestnut family is living in Louisiana when the Second American Civil War breaks out. She’s just six years old, but the America she’s born into is much different than the one we know. First of all, LA is mostly underwater. Fossil fuels are banned. Unmanned drones fly the skies, and fighting is all around them, making work hard. Permits are needed to travel from the Southern States to the North. It’s an impoverished hand-to-mouth existence, but it’s a happy one until her father dies, and fighting comes closer. Sarat’s mother uproots her family from their small home, and they make their way to the Internally Displaced Person’s camp called Camp Patience.

The beginning is sort of slow. The book didn’t really take wings and fly until Sarat got to Camp Patience. It doesn’t take long to get that far, but it is worth knowing that the start drags a little.

Camp Patience takes on a life of its own. Sarat and her family have to change to fit their surroundings. It’s done very well. I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about life in these refugee camps, and what was written about their experience largely rings true to what I’ve read about these camps. They are harsh, often brutal. There’s very little privacy, almost no hope, and lots of heartache and hardship.

In this camp, Sarat meets a man who starts to teach her about the north and the south. He gives her gifts, good food, errands to run and pays her for them. It happens so subtly that you don’t even realize that he’s buying her loyalty until there’s this one section after a horrible tragedy, and Sarat pledges vengeance to those who perpetrated these tragic events, and this man smiles. The one-two punch of brutal, graphic violence and this man’s pleasure at Sarat’s loyalty is a real fist in the gut.

To tell you the truth, that’s how most of the book is. Sarat starts as a little girl on the banks of a river and turns into a woman hellbent on death so deftly you don’t even realize it’s happening until it’s happened.

Now, this book could have easily turned into a political opinion piece, but it really doesn’t. It hardly touches on politics, and never in great detail. This is the story of a huge war that is ripping apart the lives of millions of people, on an intimate scale. Ultimately, Sarat doesn’t really give a damn about the politics, she cares more about what is happening right around her, and how she can make her mark.

In my estimation, and perhaps it’s the wrong impression I should be getting from this book, but it’s more about radicalization, how subtle it is, and how easy it is to perform if you’re given a little dark luck and the sort of mind that sees an opportunity to manipulate when one is presented to you. In truth, when I was reading this book, I thought a lot about the Middle East, and some of the problems over there, and how easy it is for one thing to lead to another, regardless of good or bad intention. It was a thought that left me very, very cold.

Sarat is a dark character in a dark place, and she leaves a dark mark. There’s a lot of violence here, and a ton of brutality. Sarat kills, and she’s in the middle of a horrible attack, and then she gets caught and tortured. There is some redemption, but this isn’t a book you’ll want to read if you want to feel happy after. It’s a book that will leave you with many heavy thoughts, and a different view of world events that is, frankly, quite worrying.

There is a debate going on about books you read for enjoyment vs. books you read for their message, and which classification is better. At the end of all this, I think American War straddles both lines perfectly. It’s an adventure, living Sarat’s life, but it’s also a profound examination on how events can create a domino effect that can irrevocably alter the course of a person’s life, and how wide those ripples, once thrown into that glassy pond, can spread.

Powerful. Important. Riveting. Beautifully written. This isn’t a book you should read, it’s a book you need to read.


5/5 stars


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