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Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.
About the Author
Omar El Akkad (born 1982) is an Egyptian-Canadian novelist and journalist.
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Otherwise... good luck to us all! Fingers crossed for this being a good choice.
Not entirely sure what to say about this one at the moment. I don't find the characters absolutely compelling, but they're interesting enough that I want to keep reading. The kids in particular are well written; the contrast in how each of them views the world and reacts to their father's 'disappearance' and the family's change in circumstance is thought-provoking, and it's hard not to try to guess where they're going to end up ahead of time.
What's most grabbing about the book so far, though, is the post-apocalyptic future El Akkad presents. Not a radiation blasted landscape or gangs of mutants roaming around in search of humanity's last holdouts, but rather a very relatable, very bleak situation that's distressingly close to the world we live in now. It's both enjoyable and shocking to continually draw parallels between the way the Southern States have started to crash and burn and a lot of the environmental concerns that are so prevalent in our own lives, and I'm curious to see what the situation is like on the Blue side of things - certainly I don't imagine it's the alternative-energy driven utopia it's made out to be.
Lastly, I'm intrigued as to where the narrator fits in. We moved quite quickly away from their perspective, but I figure their relevance will become clear pretty sharpish as the novel progresses.
Definite increase in my investment levels as things have developed. I love the way that life in the camp has affected each family member - from Martina's attempts to seize a little bit of stability, to Dana's retreat into material things, Simon's inevitable shift to joining the militia, and Sarat's developing relationship with Gaines.
And oh man, do we need to talk about Gaines. As a villain (and make no bones about it, he is a villain) he's incredibly well written. El Akkad strikes a beautiful balance between showing us what Sarat knows, as an impressionable young person in an awful environment, and what we can see as readers. The result is that we're fully aware of the fact that Gaines fills a role that's been missing in Sarat's life; he's knowledgeable, he's sensitive, he has a lot to teach her, and more than anything he's a stable and apparently reliable male influence in her life, which she's been lacking since her father died. It's no coincidence that both Benjamin and Gaines are atypical when compared to most of the other men in the Southern States, who are either painfully aggressive or blatantly profiting from the misery of those around them. We also see, in less obvious terms, that this is a man with his own agenda. He's clearly involved in a more insidious form of action against the North, and his connections to the Bouazizi are a major red flag. We know that he's bad news, and that what he's teaching Sarat is a filtered and damaging view of the world dressed up as something open-minded.
The change in her as a result of this is both brilliant (in a narrative sense) and awful (emotionally) to read. In a way she's worse than Simon, with his naive and poorly directioned anger. Gaines effectively indoctrinates Sarat, steering her toward a more deep seated and dangerous hatred of the Blues. This all comes to a head at the end of chapter 8, following the massacre in the camp. Those closing lines, where she says she wants to kill the Blues and Gaines smiles, are absolutely fucking haunting.
Weirdly, I feel like I actually have less to say at this point than I did last time. I'm loving the route the book is taking, with that more precise focus on Sarat and the way her life is going following her admission to Gaines. It's interesting to see the way she turns out, tempered by his particular brand of vitriol and pointed in the direction of the Blues. The house in Lincolnton and her interactions with Dana and Layla are little slices of normality, but she doesn't seem to really be there for them, given as she's devoted most of herself to her cause. It's harsh, seeing the effect that has on the people in her life - that growing gulf with Simon, who probably needs her more than ever, and that arms length thing with Layla.
Obviously (if you've read this far) it all culminates in Dana's death and her being shipped off to Sugarloaf for years of torture, which I think we all saw coming after she shot Weiland Sr. At this point, the questions I'm asking are where Gaines is, and how he and the Braggs fit into things. Also, this Sarat seems closer to the one the narrator describes meeting. Whatever the case, I'm still enjoying this immensely, and my investment in Sarat has been pretty perfectly coaxed on by El Akkad.
I mean, first things first, narrator question's been answered. I wasn't entirely expecting that, but I'll admit, I really liked it. Peace time, and the comparative happiness that Simon (who was his sister's polar opposite to start with) has found is the perfect setting for Sarat when she comes out of Sugarloaf. It drives home exactly what her life, and her time in the camp, has done to her. The war she was fighting - the one she believed in to her core, the one that cost her parents, siblings and a life - is practically over and done, and they've lost. Her entire world is basically crushed in that moment.
All of that is why her relationship with Benjamin is such a joy to read. I loved the potential for healing there; not redemption, per se, but a chance to be someone else. I loved that, out of everyone, it's her father's namesake she connected with most. And I love that, through her nephew, some of those rough edges start to smooth out. I think that's what makes her eventual choice all the more crushing in the end.
And that ending. Oh man.
I don't know entirely how to articulate my feelings on how American War closed. I didn't like it - I wanted her to find something better, to counter the endless pile of shit that she'd dealt with her entire life. I wanted her to choose differently. To let go of all that hate. And I think that's the point - I don't think you're supposed to come away satisfied. I think, as readers, our feelings are supposed to echo Benjamin's; that, in the end, she chose wrong, even if it was the only choice she had it in her to make.
Great book. Well written. Excellently crafted - particularly seeding it with documents and articles that pulled the whole thing together in the end.