*This book was a Shari’s Pick for January 2019!
‘American War’ drags us through the heartbreaking toll that war causes everyday people and it makes us see.
Book: American War
Author: Omar El Akkad
Published: April 4, 2017
“This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.” – American War
After I finished reading war journalist’s Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, one quote came to mind from Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Mr. El Akkad bled all the way through this haunting, moving, and conscience-punching book that begs the question: What if the United States turned its most ruthless foreign policies against its own people in a second American Civil War over fossil fuels?
But while Mr. El Akkad draws obvious parallels to modern-day controversies—such as drones, torture, refugee camps, and the weaponizing of desperation for terrorism—his story is not a political one. Instead, American War drags us through the heartbreaking toll that war causes everyday people and it makes us see.
Part dystopia, part family saga, American War follows the story of one family ravaged by the new Civil War, the Chestnuts. Specifically, curious and adventurous Sarat Chestnut, who is only 6 years old when the book begins.
Taking place several decades in the future, Sarat’s world in the South is different than the one we know today. The coastal cities have been overtaken by the ocean, Florida is now the Florida Sea, and the Free Southern State is fighting for its right to continue using fossil fuels, which have been outlawed by the North. The rivers are dead, and food is nearly impossible to grow.
When the war drives the Chestnuts from their simple home by the river, we follow Sarat’s story through refugee camps, radicalization, massacres, and immeasurable loss. This is the story of how one innocent girl becomes the victim of so much greed, eventually turning her into a weapon that will devastate the country.
Pros Versus Cons
American War enticed me from the start, with its haunting opening from a mysterious narrator. However, the book began to slow toward the middle and dragged for several chapters. I believe this is because Mr. El Akkad wrote with too much description and narration, but not enough dialogue to shape the characters and scenarios.
However, as I began to approach the final two parts of the book, the story’s pace escalated quickly. I finally found myself connecting with Sarat and her plight with the emotion and empathy I was hoping for earlier in the book.
I’m glad I kept reading, because in the final two parts, Mr. El Akkad illustrated his immense capacity for writing effective, hard-hitting, and powerful dialogue. He seemed more connected to his writing; I’m not sure why, but the words and emotion felt rawer. Perhaps less edited to perfection?
Either way, the ending was powerful and left me dumbfounded. I finally understood why Mr. El Akkad had to write the way he did in the middle of the book. As a reader, I would not have understood the end with such potency otherwise.
The Final Note
As a journalist who’s covered the war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Egyptian Revolution during the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Mr. El Akkad obviously poured his heart into this story. He has written a strong, weighty, and influential book that will force you to re-think your worldviews. It forced me to re-think mine.
The morning after finishing American War, I was scanning through my Instagram feed and came to a post from National Geographic about a Syrian father with his 2-month-old baby in a refugee camp north of Greece. I’ve always felt empathy for the plight of refugees, but this time, something else struck me—a deeper understanding, as if I knew.
If American War opened my eyes in this way, perhaps it’s an antidote for the lack of compassion across the world today, and therefore a necessary read for everyone.
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