What makes American War so terrifying is that it’s not far-fetched. The roots of the fiction are so embedded in reality it’s impossible not to follow where they wander.
Omar El Akkad’s novel starts in 2074 in Louisiana, when the second American civil war starts. It starts over all the things you’d think it would: disappearing land due to rising water, water shortages, land shortages, stifling heat and the fact that America bans the use of fossil fuel and a handful of southern states won’t stand for it.
Sarat Chestnut and her family are forced to move deeper into the Free Southern State after their bid to go north for work fails. They end up at a refugee camp called Camp Patience, right near the northern border. They spend years there and Sarat meets an older man who starts to influence her and skew her perceptions in favour of the mission of the glorious south. Later, when Sarat is a bit older, her and her family gain notoriety as southern supporters and freedom fighters. I don’t want to give anything away about the plot or the characters, really. Enjoy the tension.
El Akkad’s attention to details (what people eat, the soil they use to grow food, the ongoing under-estimation of women) creates a world so complete you can see into the future and think: it’s not impossible. More importantly you think: it could happen here. El Akkad’s setting in the future also gives him an opportunity to look at how young people are radicalized to fight wars without passing judgement on current events. Or at least without making people defensive about them.
Oh, but the bits of current events are there! Displaced persons etc. A man from a far off foreign empire comes to Sarat to ask for a favour to help sway the outcome of the civil war. He says it is a matter of self-interest, nothing else.
‘Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”
“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”’
Sometimes, the story’s cadence or details felt familiar. Something about the setting, the details, how people interact with each other reminded me of another book about an American civil war. Gone with the Wind. Both books are about wars in completely different centuries that start over different civil issues. However, they are both about the things people do to survive, how people fight back, the way war narrows a person’s focus to what’s important and how civil wars are so often mixed up in perceived freedoms or rights of one group or another.
Omar El Akkad was at Events 47 (Dreams and Nightmares) and 67 (The Literary Cabaret) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.
Related reads: Another great read about an American civil war is Gone with the Wind. I suspect that reading American War and that one back to back would create an interesting perspective, even though on the surface the books couldn’t be more different. After all, both El Akkad’s fictional war and Margaret Mitchell’s real one share some things in common: a reflection on “courage in the face of aggression,” and “protection of long-cherished ways of living.”