Book Review: American War

by John Downey '23 on February 18, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: American War

One Girl’s Ruin in a Country at War

Madison Palmieri ’22

If asked to free associate given the phrase “American War,” chances are you would immediately think of the Civil War: a conflict that, while nearly tearing the United States apart, took place in the distant past. 

  In American War, however, Omar El Akkad imagines a second civil war, one that occurs in the not-too-distant future: the latter half of the twenty-first century. The novel is narrated by a fairly anonymous figure with short government memos, letters, and other documents slipped in here and there. This is because, as the narrator tells readers in the opening pages, he is a historian and the account of the war that is to follow is a final act of revenge upon someone as he nears the end of his life. He also clarifies that “this isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

The novel’s main narrative follows the Chestnut family. When readers first encounter them, they are trying to secure passage to the North, out of the increasingly war-torn South. Father Benjamin leaves home one day and does not return after setting out for a distant office which might be able to help the family do so. As mother Martina struggles to grapple with the loss of her husband, she and her three children, Simon, Dana, and Sarat—who was named Sara at birth but added the “t” when a schoolteacher pronounced her name with it—leave their home in Louisiana for a Mississippi refugee facility, Camp Patience.

The Chestnuts are able to make a sort of home for themselves at the camp in the seven or so years they spend there, and it is here that Sarat meets many of the various figures who will shape the course of her life—for better or for worse. When Northerners attack the facility and destroy everything the young girl has come to know and love, it ignites something dormant inside of her—something deadly.

Sarat and her surviving family members relocate to Georgia, where she throws herself wholeheartedly into the Southern cause. She quickly makes a name for herself, successfully killing one of the North’s top generals with her beloved rifle named after the South’s first rebel in the war, Julia Templestowe, who walked into a crowded federal event with a bomb strapped to her chest.

Despite her skill, Sarat is soon captured and brought to Camp Sugarloaf, a detention and torture center for Southern rebels. Although she holds out for as long as she can, tolerating even permanent damage to her eyes and bends in her back, her captors eventually force her to confess—not to killing the high-ranking Northern general, but to crimes that she did not commit. 

Sarat is eventually released and returns home to find that her brother got married and had a son in her absence. Slowly but surely, she bonds with her nephew, whose initial fear at the sight of his aunt, deformed and misshapen with scars all over her body from the years of hardship she has endured, gives way to adoration.

Reunited with her family and aware that the war is coming to an end, Sarat could easily accept defeat and attempt to move on with her life. However, as the narrator asserts at the opening of the novel, “this isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.” Even though the war seems to be over, Sarat’s ruin is far from complete. She makes a choice with profound consequences for herself, her family, and her country—not to mention the narrator.

American War is a haunting tale of how the environments which shape one’s existence define who they become. Sarat herself recognizes the tragedy of this aspect of the human condition when, in a diary entry that serves as the novel’s final lines, she writes: “When I was young, I lived with my parents and my brother and my sister in a small house by the Mississippi Sea. I was happy then.” This is where American War’s true power lies: readers are able to follow Sarat as she transforms from that happy, innocent little girl into someone unrecognizable. Indeed, as Sarat learns, “the universal slogan of war…was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

Rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

by The Cowl Editor on October 28, 2021

Arts & Entertainment

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s Chilling Dystopian Vision

Tully Mahoney ’23

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling exposé of a dystopian reality in which an extreme regime overtakes the US government and creates an ultra-patriarchal, religious state known as the Republic of Gilead. The novel is told from the point of view of a Handmaid, Offred, whose only duty is to produce children for a Commander, a Gilead official, and his wife. She is subjected to participate in a “Ceremony,” a non-consensual ritual that Handmaids undergo in order to conceive children. The main themes that Atwood highlights in the novel are women’s limited choices, the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies, and the female desire for independence.

Some events that take place in The Handmaid’s Tale are very contradictory of the Christian faith, yet the extremist government in the novel justifies these acts using Christianity. Non-consensual sex, adultery, murder, and pre-marital sex are just a few examples of this phenomenon. Such acts are fundamental sins and appear contradictory to a religious state. Atwood’s deep dive into an extremist interpretation of theology, paired with an equally extreme patriarchal mindset, led her to stray from typical Christian dogma. 

On sites like GoodReads, some readers gave The Handmaid’s Tale poor ratings due to Atwood’s lack of usage of quotation marks. These reviewers ignore the importance of her message and instead cling to grammatical choices. Atwood is fully aware of when and where it is proper to use quotation marks, yet she broke this rule with intention and purpose. If one’s main argument against a novel is its grammatical correctness, then they are not truly looking at its deeper meaning. 

The Handmaid’s Tale will make readers love it while simultaneously hating it. There were sections of this novel that hurt to read, forcing some people to picture uncomfortable scenes that they would have never imagined, even in their wildest dreams. A book that makes a reader cringe as they read, yet compels them to keep reading, is a book that is worth one’s time. This dystopian world is a feminist’s nightmare, yet its terrifying reality opens readers’ eyes to the warning that Atwood is attempting to convey as she demonstrates what life would be like if humans adhered to extremist misogynistic views. Notably, the sense of horror present throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is not only limited to its women and their lack of independence, but is also seen in the men who have near-total power in their society, yet show no signs of joy, happiness, or love, which are three components of truly living.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is important for people of all walks of life to read. History is taught because everyone must learn about the past to not repeat its mistakes. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale can help prevent the realization of a society like described in the novel, one that allowed for a horrible reality for women.

Atwood has a wonderful ability to make a distant reality feel real. Readers are able to see Offred’s world, feel her contempt, and hear her conversations, which will transform their current views on the society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale feels very slow in the beginning half, but it is worth pushing through because this section of the text provides a lot of context for its second half, which will leave readers unable to put the book down.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been made into a Hulu TV show for those who are less inclined towards reading or like to pair their books with imagery in film. This reviewer must note that she could not get past the first episode because she felt like it strayed too far from the book and was not an accurate depiction. Nevertheless, the series does a fair job of conveying the general idea of the novel.