Title: American War
Author: Omar El Akkad
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Pages:352Genre: Dystopian/speculative fiction
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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.
This book is going to make my top ten books of the year list, I can already tell. I received this book as part of my April Book of the Month box and it has been the only book so far that I immediately put in my box after reading the blurb. The story takes place in 2075 in America, but an America that looks different from our world today: Global Warming has taken a devastating toll, the map looks different as coasts have been swallowed up and political borders have drastically changed. The North has banned the use of fossil fuels and the South has seceded.
The story is framed by the narrative of Benjamin Chestnut, a historian nearing the end of his days living in New Anchorage. We learn that he is part of the 'miraculous generation' of survivors that lived through the Civil War and then the devastating plague that followed. We learn that he alone is privy to way that these events really unfolded and that he knows the person who triggered the plague. It is in this document where he plans to finally come clean. We then go back in time to Louisiana during the war and follow the story of Sarat Chestnut from her life as a little girl who is part of a poor but happy family in one of the purple states (officially supportive of the North but unofficially deeply sympathetic to the south) to a refugee tomboy into a POW and then ultimately a tool for terror. In between the chapters following Sarat's life there are other documents collected by the historian that give glimpses into other parts and POVs of El Akkad's incredibly thorough and carefully thought out world.
What many reviews have commented on in particular and which has generally drawn praise has been El Akkad's world building. We are given a vivid description of a world that is recognizably ours yet startling different and this is not an accident. El Akkad has worked as a journalist in several parts of the Middle East and has reported on Guantanamo Bay. His experiences clearly inform his topic of choice and how he approaches it. He offers realistic glimpses into life in refugee camps, detention centers, prisons, the cyclical nature of violence and what circumstances forge nationalism and terrorism.
While many readers have commented that this book serves as a 'warning' as to what could happen if America does not turn away from its dependence on fossil fuels, I interpreted this book a little differently. I saw this book as a searing and raw critique of American foreign policy and 'regime building' interventions. El Akkad himself in an interview with Vox stated that "All I really did was take the conflicts that have defined the world in my lifetime and I dressed them up in different clothes...my sense has always been that this is not a book about things that didn't happen. Everything in this book has happened. It just happened somewhere far away" Let us let that sink in for a minute. America's imagined dystopia is other peoples' current reality, and in my mind it is this angle that makes this story so powerful, so crucial and so empathetic.