Louisiana, April 2075. The Second American War is raging. Sarat Chestnut is too young to fully understand what is going on, but even at her age she understands that times are hard: half of the state is underwater, food is scarce and they are not free to move. Nevertheless, her father wants to go north, where climate is less challenging and where his family can have a future. Another attack kills this dream and Sarat has to flee with her mother, her twin sister and her elder brother to a refugee camp. In Camp Patience, some kind of normal life can be established and from just a weeks of survival become years. People organise themselves according to the new circumstances, however, the chances of enduring peace are small. And, with the time, the danger of another fierce attack grows and Sarat, now a teenager, is in a different position from when her father was killed. She has to witness the worst human behaviour imaginable and this leaves a mark on her. She is not the same person anymore and she will seek revenge for what has been done to her, her family, her people.
Set at some point in the future, Omar El Akkad’s novel is nonetheless easy to imagine. The challenges due to climate change are not that fancy that you could not easily believe them. Since mankind is more prone to securing comfort than thinking ahead for future generations, having vast spaces of land destroyed will definitely be a reality sooner or later. That this – or something completely different – might lead to a civil war even in the United States, is not that inconceivable, either. We have seen many states crumble and fall in the last few years. We can only hope that the novel is much closer to fiction than to reality.
The most striking aspect is of course the protagonist Sarat. We first meet her as a young girl, naive and unaware of most of what happens around her. She is guided by her mother who already shows how powerful women of that family can be. The older she becomes, the stronger she gets. As a teenager, we have a courageous girl who is not only unafraid, but also clever and eager to understand what is going on. This not only saves her life but also makes her the woman she will be later. What she has to witness and go through, strengthens her conviction. As a grown-up woman, especially when she is in prison, we meet an unfaltering and determined woman who cannot be destroyed. Yet, she remains human, she has not completely lost faith in mankind and still can do some good – in her very own understanding.
The experience of war and human beings losing all social behaviour and sympathy for others is what determines the characters’ actions. Sarat realised that
“the misery of war represented the world’s truly universal language” (Pos. 2985) and “The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This dystopian view of the world is the only lesson we can learn from watching the news. In accepting the wars around us, we produce generations who are branded by the experiences and thus ready to do harm in the same way. We should not need novels to illustrate this simple calculation.