American War (novel)
|Author||Omar El Akkad|
|Country||United States of America|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|4 April 2017|
|Media type||Print (Softcover)|
American War is the first novel by Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad. It is set in a near-future United States of America ravaged by climate change in which a second Civil War has broken out over the use of fossil fuels. The story is told by Benjamin Chestnut about his aunt Sarat, and is told through narrative chapters interspersed with fictional primary documents collected by the narrator.
In 2074, after the passage of a bill that bans the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the United States of America, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas secede from the Union, beginning the "Second American Civil War." South Carolina is quickly incapacitated by a virus ('the Slow') that makes its inhabitants lethargic, and Texas invaded and occupied by Mexico, while the remaining "Free Southern States" continue to fight. The novel is told from the point of view of Sarat Chestnut and her nephew Benjamin Chestnut.
Sarat, six years old when the war breaks out, lives with her family on the climate change-ravaged coast of Louisiana. Her family consists of her parents Benjamin and Martina, her older brother Simon, and her fraternal twin Dana Chestnut. After Sarat's father is killed during a "homicide bombing" in Baton Rouge in 2075, Sarat and her family relocate to a refugee camp called "Camp Patience" on the Mississippi–Tennessee border.
Sarat and her family spend the next six years eking out a squalid existence at Camp Patience. At the age of twelve in 2081, Sarat is befriended by the charismatic Albert Gaines, who is a recruiter for the Southern rebels. Gaines introduces her to an agent of the emerging Bouazizi Empire named Joe, who is channelling aid to the Free Southern States in order to keep the United States weak and divided. Later, a Northern militia unit attacks Camp Patience and massacres many of the refugees, killing her mother and wounding her brother. Overcome by grief and rage, Sarat kills a Northern militia man.
Following the Camp Patience massacre, Sarat and her siblings are resettled by the Free Southern government in Lincolnton, Georgia on the border with South Carolina. The two sisters are joined by their older brother Simon, who is suffering from a bullet still lodged in his brain. Five years later, in 2086, the Chestnut siblings have settled down to their new lives. While Sarat has become a member of Gaines' rebel group, the broken Simon is tended by a Bangladeshi American woman named Karina. As time passes, Simon and Karina develop romantic feelings for each other.
During a guerrilla operation near a United States base along the Georgia-Tennessee border, Sarat assassinates General Joseph Weiland, a prominent US commander. While Sarat is hailed as a hero by the Free Southern States, Weiland's assassination only hardens the US resolve to end the Southern insurgency; leading to a crackdown against the Southern guerrillas. Sarat eventually grows disillusioned with the corrupt and self-serving Southern leadership. Later, Dana is killed when a rogue drone bombs a bus that she was traveling in.
Sarat is later captured by US forces who imprison her at the Sugarloaf Detention Facility in the Florida Sea. Sarat learns that her mentor Gaines betrayed her to the US. For the next seven years, Sarat is repeatedly tortured including being subjected to water boarding. To end the torment, Sarat confesses to several trumped-up charges. Sarat is later released after the United States government deems Gaines an unreliable source.
Years later, Simon has married Karina, who has produced a son named Benjamin. In 2095, the six-year-old Benjamin meets his aunt Sarat, who settles down on Benjamin's homestead. Sarat is later visited by one of her former rebel comrades, who informs her that his group has captured Bud Baker, one of her former Sugarloaf captors who drowned her. Sarat kills Bud but decides to spare his family after discovering that he has two teenage twin sons.
Back at Benjamin's household, tensions between Sarat and her brother's wife Karina rise after Benjamin sustains a broken arm and Sarat binds it with a crude prosthetic. Benjamin realizes that his aunt is still haunted by her childhood at Camp Patience. As his arm recovers, Benjamin becomes friendly with his aunt.
Sarat is later visited by the Bouazizi agent Joe who recruits her into carrying a deadly virus into the Reunification Ceremony in Columbus, Ohio. Joe reveals that his real name is Yousef Bin Rashid and that the Bouazizi Empire wants to prevent the re-emergence of the United States as a superpower. Seeking revenge against the US government, Sarat accepts the offer and convinces her former rebel comrades to secure her passage to the Reunification Ceremony. Before leaving, Sarat visits the crippled Gaines, but leaves without killing him. She also arranges for her associates to smuggle her nephew Benjamin to safety in New Anchorage. Meanwhile, Sarat infiltrates the Reunification Ceremony. The resulting "Reunification Plague" kills 110 million people, devastating the already war-torn country.
The orphaned Benjamin settles to his new life in New Anchorage and becomes a respected historian. Decades later, Benjamin discovers his aunt's diaries and learns of her experiences during the Second American Civil War and her role in the Reunification Plague. To spite his aunt, Benjamin burns her diaries but keeps one page as a memento.
Much of the novel is set in the "Free Southern States" which is originally made up of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. The United States is split between the Southern State and the remaining northern and western states; near the outset of the war, Mexico annexed or occupied large portions of California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. Other secessionist movements are mentioned: Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and parts of Canada are in talks to form Cascadia. The novel is interspersed with several "in-universe" historical documents, interviews, and media reports.
The "Second American Civil War" lasts between 2074 and 2095. The conflict was precipitated by the assassination of President Ki during a suicide bombing attack in 2073 and the shooting of Southern protesters outside Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 2074. After five years of conventional warfare around the borders of the Free Southern States, rebel "insurrectionists" wage a guerrilla warfare against US forces. Following a protracted negotiation process, the war is settled in the United States' favor. However, a "secessionist terrorist" (later revealed to be the protagonist Sarat) releases a biological agent known as the "Reunification Plague" during the Reunification Day Ceremony, which kills 110 million in a nationwide epidemic. Refugees flee to New Anchorage as the country begins the long process of "reconstruction." The Reunification Plague is also revealed to be the result of a failed attempt by the virologist Gerry Tusk to find a cure to "the Slow."
The rest of the world has also seen geopolitical change. After multiple failed revolutions the states of Northern Africa and portions of the Arab world and Central Asia have united as the Bouazizi Empire, with their capital in Cairo. China and the Bouazizi nations have emerged as the world's dominant economies and the European migrant crisis has reversed, with refugees from the collapsed European Union states fleeing across the Mediterranean to North Africa. In a reversal of great power politics, China and the Bouazizi Empire send aid to the war-torn United States. The Bouazizi Empire also channels funding to the Free Southern States in an attempt to destabilize the US, which it regards as a rival to its imperial ambitions. Russia is said to have undertaken a period of aggressive expansion and has been renamed the Russian Union.
Climate change has also had a significant impact on the world. Florida has been inundated by rising sea levels, only existing as a small archipelago. In a reference to Guantánamo Bay's Camp X-Ray, Florida's Sugarloaf Mountain has been repurposed as a detention facility. Much of Louisiana is under water and New Orleans is entirely abandoned. After intense migration inland from the flooded eastern seaboard, the capital of the United States has been relocated to Columbus. The Arabian Peninsula is too hot to support life, instead being devoted to solar power production. Simon's wife Karina is said to have been born in the Bangladeshi Isles, suggesting extensive flooding in South Asia.
In The New York Times, book critic Michiko Kakutani compared it favourably to Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America. She wrote that "badly melodramatic" dialogue could be forgiven by the use of details that makes the fictional future "seem alarmingly real".
- Hill, Lawrence (31 March 2017). "Omar El Akkad's American War, reviewed: A masterful debut". The Globe and the Mail. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
- Kakutani, Michiko (2017-03-27). "A Haunting Debut Looks Ahead to a Second American Civil War". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
- "David Chariandy, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson among finalists for $50K Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize". CBC Books, September 27, 2017.
- "Sharon Bala, Omar El Akkad among finalists for $40K Amazon.ca First Novel Award". CBC Books, April 28, 2018.