American War by Omar El Akkad
It’s 2075 and the US is again fighting a civil war although there’s rarely anything civil about such bloodshed. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have banded together and declared themselves the Free Southern State (FSS). South Carolina would also have been in that grouping if not for the lethal virus that was deliberately introduced into the state to subdue it. South Carolina is now an infected wasteland (many would say the D.C. swamp is also such a place).
This time around, the dispute is over the continuing use of fossil fuels. The ‘Reds’ of the FSS are determined that no one will stop them from using such destructive energy sources and are determined to hold onto their gas-guzzling muscle cars and trucks. Global warming has forced mass migration as low lying areas of coastline become submerged and the US coastline is drastically reshaped. Florida has disappeared, presumably along with Disney World; poor Mickey and Minnie. Rebel Voice wonders if Micky and Minnie were related or were they shagging when not on screen? Perhaps there was some inter-species humping going on with Donald Duck doing it with Minnie. Maybe they were even more liberated and Donald was having a go at Micky. Is that why the mouse has such a high voice? Did Donald take him by surprise? Obviously Rebel Voice has very little to do with its time to be considering such frivolities. In any event, and regardless of what Pluto’s role is in all this animal sex, large swathes of the US Gulf coastline have disappeared. It’s close to this new edge of Louisiana, a ‘Purple Sate’, that the Chestnut family have set up home.
Benjamin and Martina Chestnut, and their young children, Simon (8) and his twin sisters Dana and Sarat (6), live a simple life along the banks of the Mississippi River. Times are tough and Benjamin decides to seek a new start for the family in the more affluent northern states. It’s during a visit there in search of employment that Benjamin is killed in a Red terrorist attack on a government building. Martina is left as a young widow with some very hard calls to make as all out war looms on her doorstop.
Martina takes the fateful decision to flee her home for the relative protection of Camp Patience on the northernmost fringes of the FSS in Mississippi. Here, time passes quickly for the family as the children grow in stature, and anger, refugees monitored by the hated watchtowers of the northern military just across the border. When Simon joins a rebel militia in his late teens, and takes part in an operation that kills a northern general, it unleashes a devastating backlash against the south which results in a vicious attack on Camp Patience and its inhabitants, including Martina. Dana and Sarat survive, but Simon receives a serious head wound that leaves him severely disabled. Martina’s body is never found, believed to have been burnt by rampaging northern troops.
Sarat is the more physically imposing of the twins, and the more aggressive. She now lives to avenge the wrong done to her family. The siblings move to Georgia and set up home again. Simon acquires a carer, Karina, as he is now recognized as a hero to the south for surviving the murderous assault on him and his unit. Dana and Sarat are also afforded minor celebrity status. But Sarat has a serious agenda. She has been trained by the manipulative Albert Gaines, in the art of gunplay and has become the top sniper in the FSS.
Operating alone, Sarat becomes the scourge of the northern forces as she sneaks into their territory to execute them as she pleases. It is during one such operation that she manages to score big. She kills one of the top generals in the entire Northern command, an action that is to prove Pyrrhic as the outraged Northerners launch a terrible offensive against the FSS. Dana is killed in a drone strike and Sarat loses all sense of moral responsibility and reason. She is eventually captured by the northerners and subsequently spends years being brutally tortured in an off-shore prison. It is this experience that emotionally breaks her, before then transforming her into an emotionally twisted individual filled with pure malice for all of the North and those in it.
Meanwhile, Simon’s condition has steadily improved. He falls in love with Karina and they have one child, Benjamin, named for Simon’s fallen father. Benjamin is revealed as the eventual narrator of the tale, as he becomes privy to the life, both good and bad, of a recently released Sarat. He is also, unfortunately, swept up in the macabre plans that his aunt has formed in her strengthening determination to exact a heavy price from the North for their treatment of her and her family. Gone are Sarat’s political motivations. She is now only interested in absolute and total vengeance.
This novel could be described as an epic. It sweeps across the southern states of the US during a time of global change and crises. We, the readers, are drawn into the sorry lives of a family of good people who are made different by the circumstances in which they find themselves. It’s interesting to see how this story portrays US citizens as refugees, given the current crisis afflicting millions globally, including those seeking shelter in the US only to be caged like animals by a corrupt regime. The Chestnuts are so likable as to engender anger in the reader at their terrible treatment, but will it translate into greater sympathy for today’s refugees? Only you can answer for yourself.
The development of Sarat is curious. It’s easy to see why she turned in the direction of violence, but perhaps her psychology could have been fleshed out a bit more. Yet she remains a very engaging and pitiful character, lost to normality. Her interaction with her nephew, Benjamin, is heart-rending, as the child manages to reach the good person who still resides within Sarat’s hard shell. She is a person in thrall to the Furies but not incapable of a harsh kind of love.
The settings and depictions of the damaged FSS are fairly good. They create a sense of distress, although are perhaps incomplete. The character list is average in size and the portrayal of each is strong and consistent. The overall premise is stretched, as there are many reasons for the US to implode but an internal dispute over fossil fuels is not going to be one of them. It’s unfortunate that the overused stereotype of the fractious South has been employed. The story would have benefited from another region being cast as the rebellious ones, New England perhaps, or Washington State.
That said, American War is a very enjoyable read. It has action, romance, family, loyalties, betrayal and conflict, all wrapped up in a package of environmental disaster and the resultant struggle for survival. It also has an ending which should tug at the reader’s heartstrings in that peculiarly north American way. Think John Wayne and his Western endings with the melancholy within, to get a sense of how American War finishes. This delightful aspect of the novel is all the more unusual as the author, Omar El Akkad, is from the Middle East. Perhaps he was raised on ‘Cowboy’ films as many children across the planet, including those in Ireland, were.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. Recommended read. It’s a new take on the much used and abused apocalyptic scenario, mingled this time with a future US civil war. Strong writing and much emotion as the Grapes of Wrath meets North and South meets The Road.