By Sarah Hoenicke for Gulf Coast
Omar El Akkad’s fiction debut, American War (April, Knopf), envisions a second American Civil War, waged 2074 to 2093, again between South and North. The effects of global climate change have induced a mass-move inland as the coasts are lost to rising seas and frequent, massively destructive storms. The Southerners wish to continue to use fossil fuels, as the rest of the world moves on to cleaner energy sources, and wish to leave the Union and form the Free Southern State.
Akkad could have perhaps allotted himself an easier, if less interesting task had he set the book in the North, on the side of the righteous idealists, following protagonists on the “right side” of this would-be history. But the choice to create fierce Southern characters pitted against the murderous and unyielding idealism of the North feels intentional. Because of it, this book’s liberal audience will not slip into the easy catharsis of political rightness. Its central plot is appropriately messy and brutal, the war’s casualties not easily ignored or broadly categorized (read: “deplorables”).
This is the story of Sarat Chestnut, as told by her nephew, Benjamin, though it isn’t apparent until late in the book that he is the narrator. From the beginning, Sarat feels mythic. She names herself—née Sara T. Chestnut, a blurring of her first name and middle initial by a teacher let Sarat hear her name anew. Rather than the “impotent exhale” of Sara, she chose the “bite” of Sarat. She has a twin, Dana, who is typically feminine, and interested in everything Sarat is not—lipstick, boys, fitting in. Young Sarat does experiments with honey on her parents’ porch, and revels in the mysteries of the land around her. Once her family has been moved to the Southern refugee encampment, Camp Patience, adolescent Sarat becomes ever more daring, an unfurling of herself that leaves her on one occasion literally covered in shit.