Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fight the peace with stories

Hopelessness was no impediment to hope.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is not my kind of book. Or maybe it is.

That is, I would not have picked it up on the basis of its synopsis alone. But on top of various best-of-2017 accolades, it was longlisted for the 2018 Tournament of Books and is a current Canada Reads contender, two distinctions I can really get behind.

So I reserved the library ebook and it was checked out to me before I was ready for it. I started reading it in a stressed and resentful way, but was determined to at least skim it. For this reason, maybe I missed some important bits in the early going.

The war is between the North and the South. I wasn't entirely clear on the reasons for the war or the general conditions of the state of war, but it was something to do with continuing use of fossil fuels (which apparently are still available in 2074).

In 2074, the world is a different place. Climate has changed. As a result, geography has changed. Entire ways of life have changed.

The Middle East has extended its boundaries and is now the Bouazizi Empire. That doesn't affect Sarat on a day-to-day basis, but it's a fact of the world.

This novel isn't really about the war. It's about Sarat Chestnut and her family and the hardships they endure. It is about how Sarat becomes the person she ends up being.
"The first thing they try to take from you is your history."
It is about living as a refugee, and about recruitment and indoctrination to extremist ideologies.

Says Sarat's mentor:
"I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they're fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can't call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they're fight for, they'll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I'd had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind."
Much in the early portion of the novel is made of the protagonist Sarat being a tomboy. This struck a wrong chord with me. I'd like to believe that we live in gender-enlightened times, and that in 2018 the concept of "tomboy" is already outmoded. I'd like to believe that by 2074 the concept would be meaningless. Sarat is contrasted with her fraternal twin, who wears pretty dresses and fusses over her hair. This might make sense if in wartime the only viable means of survival for a woman meant relying on her womanly wiles. But the author never builds a case for that. In fact, most of the women are no-nonsense, and do whatever it takes. So this characterization of Sarat didn't work for me and pulled me out of the story. I don't think it's necessary in order to make the rest of the story work.

Yeah, I have some petty gripes about this book, and I was grumpy about reading it.
There existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.
It's a much subtler, smarter, more accomplished book than I initially gave it credit for. I think this book came at the wrong time for me to fully appreciate it.
You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.
Listen to Omar El Akkad in conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

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