American War is a dystopian-style novel set in the near future of the United States. The very near future, as in 2074. For me, this was one of the most disconcerting and powerful aspects of the novel. In 2074 I’ll be eighty-nine. It’s not unreasonable to think I could still be alive. It’s definitely not unreasonable to think my children will still be alive. And while the idea of a second American Civil War may not be entirely likely (or affect me hugely as a Canadian) the climate change and political upheaval it causes, as portrayed in American War, is entirely foreseeable.
The novel focuses on the Chestnut family, mainly Sarat. A child at the beginning of the novel, she lives in Louisiana with her mother, father, brother, and twin sister. Much of Louisiana has flooded due to climate change, its borders vastly changed. The Chestnuts live a subsistence-based but somewhat stable life, yet always with the uncertainty of dwelling between the North and the South. Civil War breaks out after the banning of fossil fuels and the subsequent assassination of the president. The southern states have rebelled and are pushing for independence. The Chestnuts are soon forced into a sprawling refugee camp and here Sarah grows into teenagehood, exposed to violence and betrayal, often at the hands of the Northern government.
It is at Camp Patience that Sarat learns to hate the North and as she grows up to desire vengeance for what she feels has been taken from her. At its heart, this is a novel about how people grow to hate, how schisms develop and deepen. It’s about the very personal and intimate reasons behind global and political decisions. I’m not deeply versed in the history of the American Civil War but it’s not hard to see the similarities El Akkad is drawing and the commentary he is making here on the divisions that the first civil war has left on the US.
Sarat is an interesting protagonist, though a little hard to feel like you ever get close to her. And despite her being described physically many times, I had a hard time ever really picturing her in my mind. Her motivations are complicated but easy to sympathize with, even when I didn’t agree with them.
The novel also includes inserts of other reports, newspapers, essays, etc. that provide a wider lens on this fictional history. I appreciated these sections for the change of voice and also the differing perspective it offered.
I’m sure this book has been described as “timely” quite a lot already but let me add my voice to that. Both in its portrayal of the irreversible affects of climate change and the increasingly divisive political landscape, it is a frightening but fascinating look at a future we could soon be living.