American War

American War by Omar El Akkad

The United States of fifty years from now is a vastly different place – physically, not just politically.  Climate change has ravaged the country with coastal cities becoming lost to the sea.  They even packed up and moved the capital inland from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio.

A train derailment and subsequent oil spill have forced the hand of the government in banning fossil fuel use across America.  It’s the final straw that breaks the camel’s back following decades of environmental abuse.  This doesn’t sit well with a few southern states and a decision is made to leave the Union triggering a second Civil War.

The book begins with an introduction by Benjamin Chestnut, the nephew of Sara T. Chestnut (or Sarat, as she’s known), the novel’s main protagonist.  Years prior, along with her family, Sarat arrived at a refugee camp in Louisiana shortly after the war began.  The story then follows her formative years and her important role in the battle between the North and the South.

Chapters are broken up by excerpts from historical texts that shape the war on a larger scale.  Without a doubt, these were my favorite parts of the novel.  They helped to expand the world and further detail the fundamental differences between the North & South that went beyond just the fossil fuels disagreement.  This is top-notch world-building. I actually would have loved an alternate book if the author chose to tell an “oral history” of the Civil War rather than focus in on one person’s struggle during wartime.

The only downside to this method of storytelling is that you’re told the endgame right from the beginning.  Within the first few chapters, you know the timeline of the war, what brings about the end and the post-war plague that devastated the country.  It’s then the narrator’s job to sort of fill in the blanks, at least when it comes to his Aunt Sarat.

Without Sarat’s story, the book would be a very one-sided account of the war.  The North is very much framed as the “good guys” and why not?  They’re the ones that want to ban fossil fuels; they’re the ones that want to unify the country against the threat of further damage caused by climate change.  With the country in shambles due to weather related storms, it’s natural to want to do something to save the environment despite the fact it may be too little too late.  In using Sarat, the author showcases those on the frontlines rather than those that live up North, far from where the majority of the fighting is taking place.

There are, however, some things that didn’t quite sit well with me.  Despite the importance of Sarat’s story, I couldn’t quite find a reason to get behind her, which left me apathetic to some of her struggles that make the majority of the novel.  She’s both fiercely protective of her family and people, but at the same time, she seems to hold no real loyalty to the South – she just wants to kill as many yankee bastards as she can!  But Sarat’s formative years were filled with chaotic death and destruction – she was forced into adulthood far too early.  By the novel’s end, she had become a severely damaged person – her ultimate act of revenge seeming out of place and short sighted, which sort of turned me off.  Maybe this was the author’s intention, but it didn’t help endear her to me or feel sympathetic to her cause.

I am a sucker for alternate history/future dystopian novels when they’re done well.  Unlike some novels where you need to stretch a certain level of believability, I can easily see American War becoming more or less a blueprint for the future; at least when it comes to a weather-ravaged United States and those left behind to sort out the mess.  In the end, I think I wanted something more out of this – more world-building; a more stable protagonist. You know, something to latch onto! I’m not asking for a paint-by-the-numbers fantasy or to have everything wrapped up in a bow, but I just feel like I didn’t get what I wanted out of the story.

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