—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
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Excerpted from "American War"
Copyright © 2017 Omar El Akkad.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of American War, a darkly prescient tale of a country, and a world, torn apart by war in the late twenty-first century, and the young heroine whose commitment to her family takes on the epic proportions of the second installment of America’s battle against itself.
1. The novel’s epigraphs are taken from two classic texts, an ancient Arabic book of poems and the Bible. What do the quotes and their sources suggest about the conflict that will follow in the novel?
2. Were you surprised by the way the map of the United States has been altered—the states’ borders and the landmasses themselves—in the projections for 2075? What do you think caused those changes; was it solely politics or other forces as well?
3. What does the first-person narrator we meet in the prologue explain—and not explain—about how the country has changed, the timeline of the Second American Civil War itself, and the unnamed “she” who has stayed in his memory since his youth?
4. What is the significance of Sarat’s changing of her own name when she’s a girl? How does that sense of agency and identity develop as she gets older? How does her having a twin sister fit into your understanding of her independence and actions?
5. The novel presents many different laws, agencies, and other government entities for the future America. Which did you find to be most plausible, including as sources for political conflict that would escalate into war? Are any similar to real-life policies as you’re reading about them today?
6. Describe the dynamic of the Chestnut family, parents and children. What’s similar and what’s different about domestic life in their world versus today’s and during the time of the first Civil War?
7. How pervasive is the allegiance to the Free Southern State where the Chestnuts live and throughout the cordoned region? What threats do those who disagree with the cause face?
8. How closely do the events and details of the Second American Civil War follow those of the first and/or other historical events in American history? After you finished the novel, were you more or less likely to think another such conflict could happen again in this way, on a national or global scale?
9. How do the interludes of primary source texts—textbook excerpts, government reports, notebooks, letters, etc.—enhance the personal story of Sarat and her family, in terms of the motives for and timeline of the war on a micro and macro level?
10. What gender stereotypes persist in the future between the young girls and boys, especially once the family reaches Camp Patience? How does Sarat push back against expectations of what she can and cannot do, including in contrast to her sister and brother?
11. How does the novel complicate the meaning of “home,” in a personal and national level? Does where and how a character lives at any given point determine his or her sense of security or belonging, or does this feeling come from somewhere else?
12. Sarat sees on Albert Gaines’s, a northerner’s, map different kinds of borders and observes, “To the north the land looked the same but she knew there existed some invisible fissure in the earth where her people’s country ended and the enemy’s began.” (133) How did such fissures form, and what does the outcome of the war and novel suggest about their ability to be healed?
13. How does Sarat’s plight speak to Gaines’s statement that “the first thing they try to take from you is your history”? (122)
14. What defines one’s sense of “belief” in the novel? Are people more motivated by personal beliefs, or by more institutional ones like religion or politics?
15. How are certain characters in the novel mythologized? What does this do to their day-to-day existence and their legacy? How do the mythic characters in the book parallel historical figures in what they’re remembered for and how?
16. Discuss the sequence of events and outcomes of the plague. How does that kind of warfare reflect advancements in society as well as the sense of humanity’s worth?
17. What is the role of love in the novel? By the story’s conclusion, does the idea of love conquering all still apply, or does revenge supersede it?
18. Many historians consider the first Civil War to have been a battle of the past (the South) versus the future (the North). Do those distinctions apply to the Second American Civil War, and what does this say about the future—and present—of the country and those running it?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
American War takes the gripping stories of the Arab Spring, along with the lessons from it, and applies them to a starkly alternative future. The story plays on the deep divides between Northern and Southern cultures in the melting pot that is America. The #NotMyPresident campaigns are just one harbinger of the world Mr. Akkad has painted with stunning vividness.
Took a while to gain traction for me but worth the time
In terms of precursors to the American War of the novel, most everything in that future Time is in place now. There were no American winners of the war. Think about that next time you are tempted to demonize or to dehumanize a person with whom you do not agree.
No words. This novel brings war home in so many ways.
I really enjoyed reading this book. It wasn’t a light read that’s for sure. Yet I liked following Sarat through her life and how she became to be. Sarat’s childhood is pretty much ripped apart and continues its’ descent as the book goes on. She’s pretty much robbed of it - although she’s not like other children. She’s a tomboy, taller than most kids and sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s also very inquisitive and curious. Now if you sum those characteristics and consider the living conditions she’s in, and the setting, this is ripe for anyone to take advantage of these people and manipulation is key here. You have to admit, you had to take a liking to Albert Gaines. He was proper, soft spoken, intelligent, was able to spin history as tales and stories for you to imagine. You knew what was underneath that exterior. You knew he had another agenda in his mind (it was evident that Sarat knew about this too, as did other camp inhabitants) but it didn’t matter. Living in squalor and having nowhere to go, someone with that much charisma can certainly be attractive, and Sarat was no exception. She felt special and wanted. She was perfectly manipulated into becoming an instrumental machine to their cause. You can’t blame Sarat for becoming what she ultimately came to be later in the book. The setting and plot was good. It’s pretty much civil war in the USA and climate change has wrecked havoc in some parts of the East. You also have alternate history elements in the book where you have the Bouazizi empire who have expanded and wield influence in the world, and of course you have the North and the South fighting against each other again. What really compliments the setting are the characters. There’s not many to choose from, since Sarat is really central to the story. Her family: Martina, Dana, and Simon are secondary characters. (Simon plays a larger part later in the latter half of the book). However, they’re very well rounded and you’re so attached to Sarat because she’s human. I loved Sarat for her strength and resilience. She displayed this even when she was a young child. That carried her throughout the novel and she maintained the strength up until the end. I really felt for her as she suffered immensely and yet you would completely understand her situation if it had happened to you. You would be out for revenge every chance you get. However it also goes to show how far her manipulation went and the consequences. It’s definitely not a light read but one to read slowly and to be carefully thought through. Definitely recommended.
Speculative, yet eerily possible?