Book Club: American War by Omar El Akkad


Surprisingly, American War is not a current events/political science Hot Take on what's happening in America right now. It was published in April of 2017, and so thanks to publishing timelines, it's been written for a lot longer than Trump's presidency. It's a good ol' dystopian future fantasy novel set around 2070 wherein climate change brought on a second civil war in America (once again between the North and the South).

First of all, it's a great book. It's really really worth a read. Pick it up. Hot Tip: unless you need the large print edition, try to get the regular version because I accidentally got the large print edition and it's much bigger and heavier than it has to be. (Although I did get to feel like I was reading really fast!)

Okay, now will come the spoilers. I won't spoil the whole thing, but don't read it if you don't want any spoilers at all!


It opens and closes with the words, "I was happy then." They grabbed my heart both times. There is a huge weight to a life where happiness is confined to one particular time.

The story spans the life of Sarat Chestnut, a Southerner who becomes a key player in the war, told largely from the perspective of her nephew. It is the perfect demonstration about how someone's surroundings and circumstances shape them as a person as she moves from being a happy child to a refugee to a warrior (or terrorist, depending on your side) to a prisoner to a woman who has lived under too much darkness and cannot even fathom re-integrating into the world.

Throughout the story you are invited to wonder what kind of person she might have been if not for those life-bending circumstances.

I thought it was fascinating how El Akkad orchestrated the civil war itself. It is so clearly rooted in the first (or in the real world, the only) civil war: the South versus the North, fighting over an outmoded/cruel/impossible economic practice. The first/real civil war was over slavery, the second/imagined one is over fossil fuels.

(I realize that calling slavery an "outmoded economic practice" is beyond understatement and deeply undermines the reality of the situation. I do it here because I think that's how it was viewed by many at the time. From what I understand, Southerners claim they fought over their economic independence, not owning slaves. The Southerners in this book make the same argument, this time not over their right to own humans but to kill the planet and, maybe, all of humanity as a result.)

The relationship between Sarat and her nephew is also wonderfully complex. When they meet, she has endured seven years of torture and doesn't know how to be a person anymore. He is a child. To him she is a bit of an enchanting, dark mystery. He loves her, and she learns to let herself love him. Then, later, his love becomes tangled up in anger, bitterness, and maybe even some hatred as she exacts her final revenge on the North. You don't see much of their actual relationship, but his is the narrative voice and so his view of her is embedded throughout the story.

The world building is pretty incredible. I love the little drops he puts in that help paint a picture of the world in this advanced stage of climate change. The narrator goes to Alaska and feels cold for the very first time. Everyone has to wait a few minutes for their solar panels to gear up before using cars, planes, or other technology. The world is an odd mix of future and old technology as much of what we rely on has been wiped out.

One of my favourite quotes:

"I don't think it would be unreasonable to expect that, in some circumstances, even someone hell-bent on revenge might find a temporary capacity for kindness."


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