Underground Books is a monthly book club that meets at 6:00 pm on the second Monday of the month at Main. We’re readers of books that are not typical book club fare – the subversive, the under-the radar, and the controversial. Every month, I’ll give a preview of what we’re reading, questions the book raises and start a discussion online for those who can’t make in person. Welcome to The Underground!
Hello readers! This month’s book is the 2017 novel American War by Omar El Akkad. Set roughly 60 years in the future in an America ravaged by climate change and a second civil war, it’s a story about the destruction of a nation, a family and a person by war. A cautionary tale that raises serious issues about our current national and global state of affairs, and what the future may hold. A heavy subject, yes, but worth the journey.
Opening in 2075, the earth has warmed, the oceans have enveloped the coasts and submerged what little is left after increasingly severe storms batter the land. In response to multiple environmental disasters across the continent, the federal government – now based in Columbus, Ohio – bans the use of fossil fuels. The southern states defy the ban, and after a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the assassination of the president, the U.S. is again plunged into civil war. This is a war of modern times – out-of-control drones, homicide bombers, guerilla warfare, detainment camps and biological weapons deployed against an entire state.
The novel follows the Chestnut family of flood-prone Louisiana, displaced from their home by the Battles of East Texas to an overcrowded refugee camp on the border of Tennessee. Here Sarat Chestnut comes of age among the mundane cruelties of war. She and her family – her older brother Simon, twin sister Dana, and mother Martina – try to make a life for themselves while waiting for the end of the war. Sarat, already considered an outsider because of her tall and awkward build, grows rebellious and is befriended by a mysterious older man who once fought overseas for the North, or, at least, the North when the country was whole. He feeds her a steady diet of Southern mythos, sending her on a path to become an instrument of revenge. As the narrator says in the prologue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”
- When I chose this book, I based it on, of course, the numerous good reviews it had received, and I was intrigued by concept. Given the current political climate, the possibility of another civil war in the U.S. has been raised more than once. What surprised me, however, was that the crux of the war was fossil fuels. I can understand the idea of Southern states objecting to the exercise of broad federal power, and a desire to protect mining and off-shore drilling, but what I noticed most was the absence of any mention of race or ethnicity. At the start of the novel, Sarat is described as having “fuzzy” hair, and that her father had immigrated from Mexico, but that’s the only mention of race in the entire novel. I suppose the argument could be made that by 2075, race is no longer an issue, but if we’re still arguing about red vs. blue and states’ rights vs. federal authority, I have a hard time suspending that disbelief.
- The author is an award-winning journalist born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, now living in Oregon, and he reported extensively on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring. El Akkad’s journalistic expertise is apparent in this novel, as major aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are transported to America. In many cases, it’s a note-for-note transcription. I wonder if that works for everyone? While the purpose of the novel is, arguably, to create empathy for the very real wars happening now and to also serve as a cautionary tale, could the novel have taken more liberties? I don’t mean that it should have been a Hunger Games-esque battle royale, but something more adapted to the setting.
Quotes I would have underlined if it wasn’t a library book:
“How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Must have been around ’21 or ’22,” said Gaines. “Around the time they sent us over there for the third time, right around the Fifth Spring.”
Joe leaned close to Sarat; he looked at the photograph again. “That’s right,” he said. “I remember, I remember when it was still your guns and our blood.” (p. 139)
She remembered something Albert Gaines once told her all those years ago in Patience. He said when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for, you can agree or disagree, but you can’t ever call it a lie. Right or wrong, he said, a man from our country always says exactly what he means , and stands by what he says.
Even that, it turned out, was a lie. (p. 278)
You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories. (p. 280)
What do you think? Let me know in the comments! And join us on April 9th at 6:00 at Main to discuss in real life! Next month, we’ll be reading Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – copies available at Main, or pick one up wherever convenient!