In 2074, America is as divided as ever. Some details differ from our time: The Southwest has turned to embers, and rising waters have submerged the coasts. Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, begins in the early 22nd century, with narration by an old man who has devoted his life to studying “this country’s bloody war with itself,” but not the one readers might expect. His focus is the Second American Civil War, which began in 2074. The North fought Southern secessionist states over their resistance to “a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels,” a dispute that led to the President’s assassination. The war ended in 2093, but the suffering continued for another decade when a southern rebel sneaked into the North and unleashed a biological agent that killed an additional hundred million people.
At this center of this novel is Sarat Chestnut, who, at age six at the start of the war, is taken from her Louisiana home and herded along with her mother, twin sister, and older brother into a refugee camp. The novel follows the family’s experiences over two decades, a journey in which Sarat goes from a tomboy growing up in a corrugated shipping container near sorghum fields to a resistance fighter battling northern forces. The tension flags at times, but American War is nonetheless a compelling read that eerily parallels the present day–drone strikes, detention camps–and offers a chilling reminder that irreconcilable differences inevitably lead to war.
An edited version of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness.