“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”American War, Omar El Akkad
I purchased this novel, American War, recently while waiting to fly out from Toronto to Calgary after finding myself with a couple of hours. The wait happens sometimes, being someone who’s afraid to get caught up in some unexpected security line. This book was released in 2017 and I had never heard of it. I also didn’t know who the author, Omar El Akkad, was. It was between this and Richard Wagamese’s posthumously published book, Starlight, which I still intend on getting around to. The only thing apparent to me was the fact that this was a Canadian author writing fiction about a post-apocalyptic US, and it apparently involved oil in some way.
Well, it didn’t take long before being utterly sucked into this world Omar crafted. Day after day on my work trip, I’d sneak in more pages. While this is meant as an objective review, forgive me if it ends up coming across as anything other than a unashamed advertisement!
The story is told from two different perspectives, Benjamin and Sarah “Sarat” Chestnut. Chronologically, Sarat’s comes before her nephew’s, as she describes life in the midst of a second Civil War. The reason for this new conflict comes about when the US signs a bill banning all fossil fuels, something the southern red states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas don’t agree with. They succeed from the other states, known as the blue states, to create the “Free Southern States.” Yet, life within the south quickly becomes miserable.
Plagues, deadly flying drones from the technologically advanced blue states, and increasing environmental disasters chase our protagonists daily. The story itself really sets off in 2075 when Sarat’s father heads in to Baton Rouge from their Louisiana home, a converted cargo container. He is killed by a suicide bomber, a common tactic for the free south rebels, while looking to acquire safe passage into blue territory. This forces Sarat, her twin sister, brother, and mother to flee and take refuge in “Camp Patience” on the Mississippi-Tennessee border.
Omar himself is no stranger to immigration hardships, having begun his life in Egypt. His family raised him in Qatar until moving to Canada, and now residing in Portland, Oregon.
While I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin any more of the plot for potential readers, I will say that we see a fair amount of locations throughout the 432 pages. As well, much occurs to the Chestnut family that is hard to digest at times. They begin to splinter apart, fighting over survival and philosophical views. Sarat also becomes influenced by Gaines, a recruitment officer for the free state rebels, and the book highlights what one highly-motivated individual can be capable of.
Between each chapter of the main story are excerpts of in-world history books from a slowly recovering US post-war. They do a great job of fleshing out the bigger picture, as opposed to Sarat’s ground-level descriptions. The highlights for me come later in the book as historian attempt to piece together how the Reunification Plague, a disease that wiped out over 100 million people, came to be.
What I enjoyed here, which also made me feel so uneasy, was how well Omar seemed to know this future. As if, it were already foretold with startling accuracy. Details are woven together so well that the country itself becomes a character in the story, struggling to stay alive. Descriptions of living conditions, landscape, and facilities really brought these elements to life for me. I also found so much glee in how the story strayed so far from post-apocalyptic tropes. This is a think piece, quiet and contemplative. The violence is sparse but horrific. Much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Omar’s story is concerned with survival, yet it still has a decidedly epic quality to it.
Now, I didn’t love ALL aspects at play, especially towards the back half of the book. Personally, the dialogue didn’t flow as well as some other books I’ve been reading lately. Also, since I was enjoying the deviation from common tropes along the way, it was a bit of a bummer to see how much influence one family did end up having on the world at large. Sarat’s choices at the end of her story did feel like a natural progression, except the means in which she is able to act on them seemed like a stretch.
Still, this one is worth your time! I admit I’ve even been lost in thought at times since finishing the book, contemplating what is really worth protecting. What’s sacred and what’s just feeding the ego.
In full disclosure, I have a huge passion for cars. A piece of me while need replacing when there’s no more clutches, gas pedals, or even eventually steering wheels. But, if my hobbies were to lead to the events described in these pages, I’ll walk.
Keep turning the page,