Omar El Akkad’s debut novel is an unsettling and ingenious imaging of a U.S. Civil War in the late 21st century. The story follows the life of Sarat Chestnutt, born near the Mississippi Sea in the purple state of Louisiana. The country is divided, with the southern red states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia having broken off to protect their right to use fossil fuels. Florida is underwater. South Carolina is quarantined after a disastrous contagion spread through the state in an act of biological warfare. The U.S. Capitol has moved to Columbus, Ohio, because Washington, DC, is underwater. And the blues of the north are trying to take back the territory that calls itself the Free Southern State. We learn many of these details through historical documents that appear between the chapters, but most of the book focuses on the story of Sarat herself.
As a border state, Louisiana is not entirely loyal to either side, but its people are in a constant state of fear of each other and of outsiders. Sarat’s father has been hoping for a permit to enable him to move the family north, but his death causes the family instead to flee to a refugee camp in Georgia. Only 6 years old, Sarat ends up spending most of her childhood in the camp, along with her twin sister and her older brother. She’s taken under the wing of a mysterious man who’s impressed with her toughness, and when tragedy devastates the camp, she turns to him for a way to fight back.
Akkad cleverly weaves together elements from U.S. history, politics, climate science, and warfare to create a world that feels alien yet entirely familiar. It’s not our world, but we can see the shadows of our world inside it. It’s a repetition of history, flipped around in places, but not so different from the world we know. It’s just that the U.S.’s place in it has changed. All of that is very clever, and I was fascinated to see how all the parts of it worked.
But where the book really got to me was in how it worked on my sympathies. I think it’s clear from the start that Sarat is on the wrong side of history. The book is narrated by a historian, looking back. The war is over, and the country is one again. Although the divide in the country was not over something as obviously evil as slavery, the Free Southern States were insisting on maintaining a right to use fossil fuels that contributed to the climate change that swallowed up much of the country with floods and turned what’s left of Virginia into orange-growing country. Sarat can’t even imagine a place where you aren’t hot all the time.
As a reader, I knew Sarat was in the wrong. And it’s evident early on that she will act on her wrongness, perhaps catastrophically. Yet, in the moment, at each step, her choices made sense. As a child, she is innocent of the causes of war. As a young adult, she is a victim. As a grown woman, she is vengeance. She has cause for anger, yet… yet…
This is a book that compels the reader to have sympathy for someone who commits evil. But, as the same time, it doesn’t exonerate the evil doer. She is a person capable of loving and being loved. She is also capable of becoming death. It doesn’t allow us to keep to the idea that only monsters commit evil. This is what war does. This is what pain does. This is what anger does.