American War is the most timely and poignant novel I’ve read in years. Grim from the first chapter, this isn’t a novel that will make you cry, but it sure as hell will make you despair.
Set in 2075, the America of this future has been torn apart by a second Civil War. Three Southern states have broken off from the Union in order to maintain the freedom to use fossil fuels, which have been banned by the Union due to the devastation they have wrought on the continent. In Louisiana, Benjamin and Martina Chestnut have hopes of moving their family up North to safer and more prosperous lands. When Benjamin is killed by an insurrectionist bomb while applying for a Northern work permit, Martina is forced to move herself and her three children–Simon and twins Dana and Sarat–to a refugee camp.
While living at Camp Patience, each of the children develops his or her own way to cope. Simon, ever resentful of his father for having been, in Simon’s mind, a traitor to the South, joins a rebel group. Dana, the beautiful and innocent child, clings to hope, while Sarat forges friendship with Albert Gaines, an adult who can offer her books and education. Sarat also forms a friendship with Marcus, another child in the camp, whose father wants to escape to the North, even though he hates Northerners. “If you had a chance to go where it’s safe, wouldn’t you?” Marcus asks.
Sarat thinks about this and wonders whether the craving for safety, while sensible, isn’t also treasonous: “. . .perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence–a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”
When tragedy strikes the camp, Sarat’s future as an instrument of war is sealed.
Themes of family and friendship are woven throughout this novel, criss-crossing the darker themes of war and the collateral damage thereof. When Martina takes her children to Camp Patience, she doesn’t have a side, doesn’t care about the ideological differences between the North and the South. All she cares about is keeping her family safe. The devastating effects of war on ordinary people just trying to live their lives is heartbreaking and all too real.
Sarat’s transformation is handled elegantly in that it’s never intended to be a surprise. The author telegraphs his intent from the first pages of the novel. The reader knows exactly where this tragedy is going to end and can only watch helplessly as the events unfold that will make Sarat who she is. That’s not to say you feel sorry for her, exactly, or justify her actions. You just accept them. Sarat is neither a hero nor a monster; she just is.
This is a story about love, family, pain, terror, and revenge. But mostly it’s about war and how war shapes the people that are in its path. As one character observes, “. . . the misery of war represented the world’s only true universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same–and yet they were. War broke them the same way. Made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike, but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”