In this age of political tensions after a controversial election, it’s not hard to say America feels more divided than ever. Sometimes its endless banter, but other times it feels like the United States is on the verge of another civil war. However, everyone knows it won’t be like the last American Civil War, with technology more prevalent among citizens and climate change on the rise. For decades, writers have tackled the idea of a Second American Civil War on paper, with many making their fictional version unique in many ways.
“American War” by Omar El Akkad…does that in some ways, but in other ways feels like a retread of dystopian fiction novels where America is in another civil war. I won’t say this book is bad because of this, since for a book centered on this concept, it does it well, but there were some parts I felt could’ve been expanded upon. The main characters are fine too, but it also feels like the author didn’t give much focus on them.
Set in the far future in the neutral territories of Alaska, an elderly historian recalls how in the year 2074, a controversial anti-fossil fuel amendment and a series of aggressive terrorist attacks lead the US states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to secede into the Free Southern State.
In the Free Southern State lived the Chestnut family, made up of a young girl named Sarat, her twin sister Dana and their older brother Simon. After their father dies in a bombing, their mother—a determined woman named Martina—has them move away from their squalid home along the flooded Mississippi River and to a refugee camp. The rest of the novel is essentially a recounting of Sarat and her experience in the bloody conflict across state lines, from the horrors of war to the horrible things she and her siblings did to survive, as well as the consequences it brought upon them and their psyches.
The first quarter is focused mainly on Martina and her actions in helping out her children with a better life. We see the determined tire she feels with each moment, the sacrifices made to get themselves safe passage, the horrors and risks faced.
The second quarter is focused on Sarat and her siblings, and how they fare in the refugee camp—called Camp Patience—and the friends they make while trying to comprehend the war-torn world around them. Camp Patience was quite familial as well, despite the situation and how pitted the North and South are against each other. It felt like a community in many ways.
We meet some interesting characters as well, like Marcus Exum and the friendship he forms with Sarat in a world where losing somebody is more common than rain. Her sibling rivalry with Dana and Simon as well as the deep connections and traumas they face are well-rooted as well, and you feel the dilemmas Sarat, her sister and soldiering brother Simon face (what happens to him by the end of the story is just so tragic and inspiring).
Speaking of which, why don’t we talk about her as a protagonist? As main characters go, Sarat is a mixture of interest and boredom. As a young girl she’s a tense but tomboy-ish ball of sunshine, but as she grows older Sarat’s pride for her heritage defines her actions as the war for Southern independence grows strong, and you feel how much she wants the Free Southern State to become independent. While you know her actions later in the book can be seen as downright deplorable, you feel how she feels and understand why she does this while feeling sorry for her.
And it isn’t because of prejudices (hell, it’s mentioned several times her family is African-American, though it begs the question how that’s possible for her to be prominent as a FSS soldier later in the story if the South is known for its racist past?) but because of how much she takes pride as a Southern and how much she loves her region. She grew up in the rural region, lived in it her entire life and simply wants nothing more than the North to allow the FSS nothing but to exist as another country.
I especially loved her talks with Albert Gaines as well, and how much you could take out of his lectures on the politics of their world as well as how they mirror off of the politics of our world. Similar to the talk between Scout and her uncle in “Go Set a Watchman”, “American War” have intrinsic and great commentary on why the industrialized, suburban, liberal North and the conservative, rural South are always at each other’s throats.
Though the words and narrative and snippets of text a la “Illuminae” and “Gemina”-style, you feel the grime and politically divided the world is between the Northern States and the Free Southern State. The dialogue, the propaganda and choice of words used make you feel like you’re in another Second Civil War and not just a futuristic world where America is simply divided.
If there were any complaints on my part, one major problem involves the format Omar El Akkad made with “American War”. For me, it felt like the novel had too many time skips, with the first quarter being focused on Sarat’s mother helping her children through War-torn Louisiana, the second quarter taking place several years later in Camp Patience, the third quarter being focused on Sarat as a famous soldier and the final quarter (without giving too much away) focused on the war’s aftermath and how it affected PTSD-afflicted Sarat and her siblings, as well as her forming a connection between her and her young nephew.
Between stories about a widowed mother guiding her kids to a safe haven, another about a trio of kids living in a refugee camp, another about a brainwashed soldier killing her fellow men in a civil war she believes is justified and another about the consequences of said war on a veterans while she tries to heal her mind and body with the help her young relative, you could honestly take these four quarters and make an entire novel for each of them. Maybe it’s just me though, because for four different, very distant stories they’re not bad and I felt like they should’ve been either focused on more or less focused on. Even though it has more time skips than Les Misérables, I still like these stories fine.
Overall, “American War” isn’t a groundbreaking novel about the follies of war, since there are tons of novels that do it more affectively (including some reviewed on this blog) but it does its job tremendously in some areas. The narrative and diction convey the heaviness of the war, the scenes between Sarat and her siblings are heartfelt, and my favorite section has to be when she forms a connection with Benjamin in the final third. Dripping with commentary on political tensions and written well for a debut novel, Omar El Akkad’s “American War” is a decent book that might interest readers who want to read about another civil war.
It’s not perfect, but I’m glad I read the book, even if it could’ve been four.
Two weeks from now, look out for my review of the movie adaptation of Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn“!
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