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A chilling tale, lucidly told, of a Second American Civil War

American Civil WarAmerican War: A Novel, by Omar El Akkad

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation.

In previous decades, rising seas and monster storms have submerged large swaths of the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, driving millions of people far into the nation’s heartland. Boston, New York, Washington—every low-lying city on both coasts—they’re all now under water. Elevated temperatures have eliminated countless animal species and destroyed huge areas of formerly rich farmland. Mexico has seized Texas and most of the Southwest, governing them under a Protectorate. And the United States has long been isolated on the world stage. “[T]he 2030s and 2040s [were] the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.” The “newborn superpowers” are China and the Bouazzizi Empire that spans North Africa and the Middle East.

What’s left of Louisiana is neutral territory, considered Purple, wedged between Texas and the core Southern states that are called the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). There, Sarat, her fraternal twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live in deepening poverty with their parents. In hopes of obtaining a work permit and the means to move his family to safer ground, their father sets out for the North—and there at a federal courthouse he falls victim to another Southern terrorist bomb.

American War spans the years from 2074 to 2123. The story is narrated in old age by Benjamin Chestnut, Sarat’s nephew, whom we meet by name only late in the war. Benjamin regards the tale as tragedy in the classical sense. “Some people are born sentenced to terrible inheritance,” he writes, “diseases that lay dormant in the blood from birth. My sentence was to know, to understand.” Interspersed with Benjamin’s narrative are brief excerpts from speeches, official documents, and interviews with incidental characters that broaden the scope of the tale beyond Sarat and her family. But Sarat is the tightly focused subject of this chilling tale.

At times, the action in American War is almost unbearably raw. A massacre scene that’s central to the story conjures up memories of survivors’ reports from the 1982 invasion of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon, when right-wing Christian militiamen were unleashed by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon. Those reports haunt me to this day.

Sadly, the scenario El Akkad paints in his novel of a Second American Civil War comes across as all too credible in today’s darkening political environment. His portrayal of the toll taken by the rising sea level may be exaggerated, since current scientific projections foresee a much more gradual process. But the fanaticism on both sides of the Second American Civil War—the standoff between Reds and Blues—is little greater than the polarization that has come to dominate the country’s politics in recent years. And the heated dispute over the use of fossil fuels is by no means beyond belief. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. American War is a perfect example.

The author, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad, has reported from around the world for the Toronto Globe and Mail. American War in his first book.

For reviews of other dystopian novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, see A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

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Categorised in: Science Fiction, Trade Fiction

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