Task: Read a book by debut novelist.
Alternatives: Read a book about war. Read a book by an immigrant.
I read American War right around the time that I returned to work after maternity leave. If you’ve never returned to full time employment after a sudden and total immersion on Planet Baby, let me tell you – hell, I don’t even know what to tell you. It was hard. Hard in ways I didn’t understand, couldn’t have anticipated, and had a rough time coping with. The smallbear had started sleeping through the night right before I went back, bless her, but the sleep debt I had racked up during the past three months had started sending goons with baseball bats to my front door, and between the intense exhaustion and the abject lack of baby at work, I was stumbling around barely conscious and frantic to prove to my coworkers that I was still somewhat competent (against all odds, this was one of the most productive periods of work I’ve ever had). Being suddenly separated from this creature that had been living inside my body for months and then in whose constant company I’d been for twenty-four hours a day felt like getting thrown into ice water. I didn’t do much but work, pump, and cry for those first few weeks back. And I WANTED to go back to work, mind you.
[Statement of the obvious: three months isn’t enough. And I was so lucky to have that much in this terrible country.]
That has absolutely nothing to do with this book, which I read a handful of paragraphs at a time over about a month. Readers have to meet books halfway, and this book deserved better than I was able to give. I did make it all the way through and I do have opinions about it. I just feel like I missed out on the true readery experience of the thing and like I’m working with a remembered Wikipedia entry instead. With that said, here’s what I thought about it.
The book is set in the future, where a second American civil war is raging between the north and the south again, fought largely over fossil fuel (“prohibition fuel” in the novel). El Akkad is a journalist who has covered conflicts, refugee camps, revolutions, and torture, and it shows. The mechanics of the war and the refugee camp where the first third or so of the book take place feel disturbingly real, and it bothered me how upset I was by passages about refugee camps that used “Alabama” instead of “Somalia.” There are so many moments in this book that are literally occurring around the world right now, impacting people who are no less human than I am. I found myself having to confront something ugly in my brain that defaults to prioritizing familiar places and peoples, and I’d say that is American War’s greatest strength.
On the other hand, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to imagine a purely resource-driven American civil war occurring seventyish years in the future, given the state of this place. It doesn’t touch race, the urban/rural divide, or widespread income inequality, and I can’t imagine a plausible American armed conflict that isn’t exacerbated by any of those things. There was a strong regional pride in the southern rebel states, which also bothered me, because I cannot extricate Confederate flag-waving southern pride from southern bigotry. I understood that there was a parallel being drawn between dominant economic “resources” in the South, but fossil fuels and slavery aren’t exactly comparable peculiar institutions, and the idea made me uncomfortable.
The book follows Sarat (née Sara T. Chestnut), who starts out as a six-year-old tomboy living in a repurposed shipping container in a climate-change-ravaged Louisiana. It’s a dismal environment, but she, her twin sister, and brother eke out a childhood all the same. But when her father is killed and her family is relocated to Camp Patience, a massive refugee camp, she becomes radicalized by a man named Albert Gaines who takes her under his wing. It’s upsetting to read – Sarat’s decisions make perfect, heartbreaking sense, all the way through to her final, horrific act.
Sarat is the kind of character I usually really get into, and true female anti-heroes are frustratingly rare. Still, I felt distanced from her, and I honestly can’t tell if it was because of the book or because of my own train wreck state at the time. There weren’t many other characters that stood out in a meaningful way, either, except as tragedy fuel. There’s a sudden shift in perspective where the identity of the narrator is revealed, and it happened too near the end of the book for me to be satisfied with it. Again, though, I don’t know that I was going to be satisfied with anything during that month of my life.
In spite of all my (possibly invalid) complaining, I do recommend this book. Its horrifying descriptions of drone and guerrilla warfare and their effect on civilian populations are important, and if it takes substituting familiar place names to get people like me to seriously consider our complicity in very real current events, so be it.