He demonstrates cool assurance at using details — many gathered, it seems, during his years as a reporter — to make his fictional future feel alarmingly real. And he writes here with boldness and audacity, using a collagelike method (involving fictional news clippings, oral history excerpts, memoirs, government documents) to help chronicle the events that led to and followed the Second American Civil War.
Those events include escalating battles over the use of fossil fuel; the assassination of the United States president by a secessionist suicide bomber in 2073; horrifying drone attacks, massacres and guerrilla violence that further embitter both sides; and, just as the war is about to conclude in 2095 with a reunification ceremony, the release of a biological agent by a Southern terrorist that results in a decade-long plague claiming 110 million lives.
The Chestnut family at the center of “American War” once led a quiet life in flood-ridden Louisiana. When the novel opens, the twin girls, Sarat and Dana, are 6; their brother, Simon, is 9. After a suicide bomber kills their father, the children and their mother, Martina, end up in Camp Patience — a “huge tent favela” for refugees near the Tennessee border. There they will remain for more than a half-dozen years.
Although “American War” is narrated, in part, by Benjamin Chestnut — Simon’s son, who miraculously survives the plague — it is Benjamin’s Aunt Sarat who stands at center stage. At first she bears more than a passing resemblance to several famous young-adult heroines. Like Katniss from “The Hunger Games” and Tris from the “Divergent” series, she’s a feisty, unconventional girl forced by the harsh conditions of the dystopian world in which she lives to prove herself as a warrior. She is defiant, resourceful and willing to sacrifice her life to protect those she loves.
Along the way, however, Sarat will be tempted to turn to the dark side by an erudite man, Albert Gaines, who shows up at the refugee camp and tells her that he travels around the South, where the Northerners and their drones “have caused terrible carnage,” looking for “special people — people who, if given the chance and the necessary tools, would stand up and face the enemy on behalf of those who can’t.”
Gaines becomes Sarat’s teacher. He gives her books to read and teaches her about the natural world, and what the world was like before climate change altered the algorithms of everyday life. He also feeds her the mythology of the South — how much was real and how much was fantasy doesn’t matter to her; “she believed every word.” He also plays to her sense of grievance and anger — rage that will build as she witnesses the calamities of war and loses one family member after another.
It becomes clear to the reader pretty early on just what Gaines is recruiting Sarat to do — in fact, El Akkad scatters a bread-crumb trail of clues through the novel, as he tracks Sarat’s increasingly risky peregrinations after a gruesome massacre at Camp Patience. In recounting Sarat’s emotional evolution — and the dreadful choices she will be asked to make — El Akkad has written a novel that not only maps the harrowing effects of violence on one woman and her family, but also becomes a disturbing parable about the ruinous consequences of war on ordinary civilians.