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August 7, 2017

Great Book Club Book: American War by Omar El Akkad #MondayBlogs

by Donna Huber

I've always wanted to join a book club and this summer I noticed that the library was offering a post-apocalyptic book club. I enjoy dystopian novels, but typically I read young adult in this genre so I thought it would be nice to discover some adult dystopian. We met last week and had a great discussion. If you are in a book club, I highly recommend American War for the discussion potential alone.
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American War
April 2017; Knopf; 978-0451493583
ebook, audio, print (333 pages); dystopian

American War is set in 2075 to about 2095. Fossil fuel usage has changed the landscape of the U.S., much of the coast line has been storm ravaged and Florida is totally under water. The western states are largely controlled by the Mexican Protectorate. China and the middle eastern Bouazizi Empire are superpowers and the U.S. is divided once again by a civil war.

The story is written largely as a biography by the history professor narrator from the prologue. Interspersed between the chapters are primary sources from the time. These intercalary chapters provide a macro view of what is happening in the world. While the chapters about main character Sarat Chestnut provide a very focused micro world view. I enjoyed the intercalary chapters more than the narrative. I looked forward to getting to the end of a chapter just to get these nuggets of information.

The chapters are long; this 333-page novel only has 16 chapters. I think I would have preferred shorter chapters. The lack of information, technology, and education in the world El Akkad created left me frustrated. Sarat is from Louisiana and migrates first to a refugee camp in Alabama, then to a charity house in Georgia and finally a stint at a prison camp on an island in the Florida sea. Without the intercalary chapters, the reader would have no idea what was happening the rest of the country.

The premise of the story and the set up of the universe was too thin for me to fully embrace it. The suspense of belief was very difficult for me and largely why I did not enjoy the book. Many of the plot devices were too convenient and not realistically supported in the context of the book. At times, I felt that with a few minor changes, I felt the story could have easily been set in 1865 as much as it could be set in 20175. The map of U.S. in the book largely reflects the U.S. (geographically and populationally) of the 1860s. Though there are predictions that the eastern coast and Florida will be underwater in 60 years. But if El Akkad is basing his geographic changes on that, then New York City would also be underwater.

South Carolina being walled off because of an "anti-revolution" virus that the North released on the people to quash rebellion seemed too convenient and could have been explored more.

Great quotes for discussion

El Akkad had some very poignant statements throughout the book that really stuck with me.

"But you're not of them. There's no sin in making a safer life for your children - and maybe when they're old enough to make decisions for themselves they can come back to their own country - but you're not of them. You're still Southerners in you're bones, still Southerners in your blood. That won't ever change."

This passage had me wondering if El Akkad had ever visited the south. In this statement and in other areas of the book, it felt that he was relying too heavily on the stereotype of a southerner. There may be pockets of southerners in rural areas that still feel like this, but largely this sentiment of regional loyalty was much more prevalent in the 19th century than today. Will we really go back to this way of thinking in 60 years?

Something I hadn't thought about but was brought up in the book club was the lack of racial diversity in the south in the book. Everyone is a person of color - black or Mexican but no white people. We didn't have much time to explore this issue, but I wonder how it plays into the regional identity of the people.

"But behind them, in the dead-end towns where they were born, lay a slower kind of death - death at the hands of poverty and boredom and decay." pg. 36

Though we never get more information on what is behind the poverty besides fossil fuel usage. It also mentioned that the Union/North is wealthy and better off, but then while Sarat sits in her sniper blind she ruminates on the fact the guard at the gate came from nothing - a country boy from a dusty farm. It gives a glimpse that the north isn't any better off.

"What she couldn't have known that morning was that the rebels, the federal troops, and the Mexican militias ultimately fought to a stand-still; the violence never inched any further into Louisiana than it did on that brittle April day when the Chestnuts left their land." pg. 47

How differently the story would have played out had they not fled. How many choices have we made based on what we thought would happen? Did we ever look back and ask what if? It really spoke to Sarat's character that she never looked back. She made her decision and then made the best life she could at Camp Patience. Or perhaps she never knew the outcome of the battle that sounded like it was knocking on her back door.

"hopelessness was no impediment to hope." pg. 79

How often do we do something even though we know it won't work just because doing nothing is not an option?

"And as she imagined the possibilities, Sarat though of something else: desertion, of treason against one's own. But what the man and his son had done didn't feel to her like treason, only the grim work of the hopeless...But in this moment as she watched her closest friend disappear into that alien land, she wished only that he be safe there. That he live, that he simply live." pg 154

A glimpse into the internal conflict Sarat feels about her situation?

Great characters for discussion

El Akkad created a number of interesting and complex characters. Delving into their identities and motivations make be a discussion hour on its own.

Sarat Chestnut - She is 6 years old when the story starts. She has a twin sister - a pretty, light-skinned sister who rather play dress up than play in the mud. She also has an older brother. Sarat is curious about the world around her.

She is bigger than most children her age, her skin is darker. She is described as being like her mother - stubborn, hard, undaunted.

She is teased by the other children but isn't even aware that is what they are doing.

"I don't mean them, I mean like today, with Bishop. Like you'll believe anything anyone tells you, like don't know when the joke's on you...You have to grow up, Sarat. You're not a little girl anymore. Look; just try not to give anybody reason to make fun of you, is all. You'll make more friends that way." pg. 88

Being an outside make her more susceptible to Gaines. I knew shortly after the first encounter with Gaines that he would turn her into a suicide bomber. Sarat is the kind of person that people prey on with their own ideology - she is an outcast, wants to feel special. However, she shows strengthen when she doesn't don a "farmer suit" and instead becomes a sniper and again when she is sent to the detention center and remains silent. Yet in the end, Benjamin describes her as a coward.

Albert Gaines - he is a bit of a shadow character. I never truly understand his motivation. He is from the north, fought in the middle east, but when he returned home to an ungrateful nation he settled in the south. He liked the south because "Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind." pg. 144

He takes Sarat under his tutelage. Gives her books and tasks. He pays her with Northern money and can freely come and go from the camp. He introduces her to Joe.

Joe - he was a translator, or some kind of go-between, for the U.S. army and the middle eastern factions during the war there. Joe supplies arms and other materials that the rebels require. If you haven't figured out his motivations he reveals all to Sarat in the end.

Karina Choudhary - we didn't get to talk much about Karina. She is dropped into the story to care for Simon at the charity house. The house is provided by the north, but who provided Karina. Her parents live in the north and they had been relief workers in the middle east. She is a relief worker in the south but doesn't buy into the South's cause. Sarat doesn't like her, but Simon grows very fond of her. I wonder if there is more to her.

Markus Exom - we didn't get to him at all during the book club and I wish we had. He kept crossing paths with Sarat, though it is unclear what happens to him in the end.

Great topics for discussion

If your book club hasn't had enough to talk about, there are a number of topics ranging from fossil fuel usage to comparisons to modern day politics to discuss. Here are a few we touched on.

Identity - I mentioned earlier about the South's identity, but taking a more focused view of Sarat's identity and what shaped it. While religion plays little role in their lives, when they flee Lousiania she grabs the stone statue of Mary that is about the same size as her. He had belonged to her father. It survived their exodus from Camp Patience. Sarat is very committed to her family, does the statue represent her father to her?

Drones - this came up right at the end of our meeting. Were they really randomly bombing places? The only information we hear about the bombings is of southern cities. If that is true, then it is really random or is someone else in control. It was apparently a southerner who hacked the server controlling the drones in the first place, but I'm not sure there is anyone skilled enough to do it from the people we see. Are the drones being controlled by an outside entity that wants the unrest to continue?

Diversity - the main character is female and part black, part Mexican. The author was born in Egypt, raised in Canada, and now resides in Oregon. With so much emphasis on creating diverse characters and having diverse authors, how does American War fit into those discussions?

Choices/Fate - Sarat is angry about what has been done to her, but she never acknowledges the role of her own choices. Did she have choices? Could she have chosen differently?

Revenge - It seemed that the sequence of events all hinged on seeking revenge. Where the characters always justified in their revenge? Did revenge bring resolution or satisfaction to the character?

Final thoughts

I didn't really enjoy reading this book, I never felt the pull or desire to rush back to it each evening. But I think it was a worthwhile read. I took a bunch of notes (at one point I wondered if my note taking was hindering my enjoyment). I really enjoyed the last 89 pages (yes I was counting down how many more pages I had to read).

I think more insight into the universe El Akkad created would have increased my enjoyment as it may have made the world seem more real, an actual future possibility.

I also thought there were points that El Akkad was trying to make about today's social and political climate but didn't fully make the point - more of a veiled attempt to point out a "failing" rather than just saying it.

If you have a book club that wants a great discussion, then American War should be your next pick.

Buy American War at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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