It is early in the 22nd century, and the United States has been torn inside out. The last 50 years, especially, have not been kind. A three-pronged disaster – global warming, a manufactured plague and a brutal civil war – has turned many of its citizens into refugees. China, along with the fictional Bouazizi Empire in North Africa, rule the world. The oceans have risen and swamped the eastern seaboard; Augusta, which on any present-day map is located some 200 kilometres inland from the Georgia coast, has become a major port. Residents of South Carolina have succumbed to an irreversible virus and live in a walled quarantine – anyone trying to escape over the wall will be shot on sight. U.S. presidents were assassinated at the start, and at the end, of the Second American Civil War. And at a reunification ceremony signalling the end of the war between the North and South – in which the North prevailed once again – a Southern terrorist releases a biological agent that sets in motion a plague that takes more than 100 million lives.
This is the setting of Omar El Akkad's astounding, gripping and eerily believable novel, American War.
The novel's narrator is a Southerner by birth, and a scholar of the Second American Civil War, which took place between 2074 and 2095. It is some time near the end of the first quarter of the 22nd century, and he's living in New Anchorage, Alaska. (While it no longer snows in Alaska, climate change has not destroyed the region as fundamentally as the rest of the former United States.) I won't name the narrator, because to do so would constitute a major spoiler, but we know from the first pages that he is an old man, dying of cancer, and trying to come to terms with the awful reality of the war, and the subsequent plague, that gripped his country.
"My favourite postcards are from the 2030s and 2040s, the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself," he writes in the novel's prologue. "They featured pictures of the great ocean beaches before rising waters took them; images of the Southwest before it turned to embers; photographs of the Midwestern plains, endless and empty under bluest sky, before the Inland Exodus filled them with the coastal displaced. A visual reminder of America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious."
To give the story a personal dimension, the narrator tells us about the life of one particular woman, Sarah T. Chestnut, better known as "Sarat," who lived through the horrors of the war. After her father is killed in an act of terrorism, Sarat's family is forced to eke out a miserable, unending existence in Camp Patience, built for Southern refugees. Her brother becomes a child soldier in a rebel gang while Sarat is preyed upon by a mysterious, older man named Albert Gaines. He plies her with honey and caviar, feeds her lies about misdeeds that the North never actually committed, teaches her to hate an enemy she doesn't know and recruits her into a life of violence. The novel, charting the ruination of her soul, is a tragedy. We first see her in childhood as kind, smart, playful and independent, and the hardest thing to witness is how a series of misfortunes, none of her own making, suck the curiosity and love out of Sarat and redirect her, while she's still an adolescent, toward a life of hatred and vengeance.
El Akkad – a Canadian who was born in Cairo, grew up in Qatar, worked previously as a reporter for The Globe and Mail, and now lives near Portland, Ore. – is offering the reader a warning: Once the switch of hatred has been turned on, almost nothing can turn it off again.
American War serves as a meditation on the nature of the U.S. Civil War, which took place between 1861 and 1865, although the inciting factors in El Akkad's second, fictional conflict are different. For instance, we know that issues such as the states' rights to oppose federal laws and the economics of slavery were among the root causes of the Civil War – indeed, race, and racial identity, and the place of black people in American society, have defined social, economic, political and military life in the country before, during and since. But while El Akkad hints that Sarat and her family are black, he makes no mention of race or racism. Instead, social hierarchy is constructed along lines of geography and class. If you are a Southerner, you and your people are likely to have been oppressed, impoverished and turned into refugees in your own land. If you have not been murdered, you may well have been imprisoned and tortured.
In the case of American War, it's environmental catastrophe that serves as the trigger. In El Akkad's haunting and convincing fictional scenario, the U.S. government has passed the Sustainable Futures Act, prohibiting the use of fossil fuels anywhere in the country. (However, the illicit use of fossil fuels is just as common during this war as was the consumption of alcohol during the U.S. Prohibition in the early 20th century.) Southerners rebel and secede. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina form the "Free Southern State." Texas has formed part of the secession too, but – in a literary payback for Mexico's loss of Texas and California to the United States in the 1800s – Mexico annexes Texas. Southern militia groups carry out assassinations, bombings and other acts against the North, and occasionally, the powerful North metes out punishment with violence that exponentially exceeds the original offence and exacerbates civilian suffering. Sound familiar?
American War is Omar El Akkad's first novel and it is masterful. Both the story and the writing are lucid, succinct, powerful and persuasive. Most of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but occasionally El Akkad offers fascinating tidbits – media stories, academic studies, government reports and the like – about the war, the plague and the refugees. Over the course of the novel, we will discover how the narrator came to know and love Sarat, how he suffered to see her suffer and how he witnessed good and evil do battle for her soul. But, more importantly, we come to reflect once more on the egotism and idiocy of war, and on the millions of people it makes homeless, and on the unfortunate way that those who still have the means to live inside locked homes tend to hate others who show up en masse at their doorstep, shoeless and hungry and desperate.
Look out, El Akkad seems to telling his readers. The seas are rising, and with it, hatred. We may well become refugees. It's our turn next.
Lawrence Hill, a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph, is the author of 10 books including The Book of Negroes and The Illegal. He is at work on a new novel.
The sun broke through a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea.
The coastal waters were brown and still. The sea's mouth opened wide over ruined marshland, and every year grew wider, the water picking away at the silt and sand and clay, until the old riverside plantations and plastics factories and marine railways became unstable. Before the buildings slid into the water for good, they were stripped of their usable parts by the delta's last holdout residents. The water swallowed the land. To the southeast, the once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.
A little girl, six years old, sat on the porch of her family's home under a clapboard awning. She held a plastic container of honey, which was made in the shape of a bear. From the top of its head golden liquid slid out onto the cheap pine floorboard.
The girl poured the honey into the wood's deep knots and watched the serpentine manner in which the liquid took to the contours of its new surroundings. This is her earliest memory, the moment she begins.
And this is how, in those moments when the bitterness subsides, I choose to remember her. A child.
I wish I had known her then, in those years when she was still unbroken.
Excerpted from American War. Copyright © 2017 by Omar El Akkad. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.