I’d heard of this book some time ago and then it resurfaced recently when it was shortlisted for a major literary prize in Canada. I picked it up early this year and unfortunately, it took me a long time to read it. I had trouble engaging with the story for the most part. I found it difficult to follow where the story was going and what point the author was trying to make. Although the use of fossil fuels and a new civil war were the major themes, they didn’t seem to be what the book was truly about. It follows the life of Sarah T. Chestnut (Sarat for short) who goes through a series of tragic events that start with the death of her father and the beginning of a new civil war in America. Only when I was about 70% in did the premise of the book finally become clear. From that point onward, I was able to finish the rest of the book in a single evening.
Before I get into some of the details with spoilers, I wanted to point out that although the book is rarely categorized as literary fiction, at least as far as my research told me, I would say that’s what it is. It is a carefully crafted story with lots of world-building and attention to detail that at first does not appear to be of crucial importance. A lot is happening, but the meaning of the events, besides being tragic, are not apparent until later, which makes it harder to engage with the story and sympathize with the main character.
I give the book 3 out of 5 stars for the topic it raises and the way it is crafted.
I would have given it 5 stars if there were a hook at the beginning. Maybe it was too linear with all events happening in sequence.
Sarat goes through a lot in her life and the events of her youth make a significant impression on her. Additionally, this is amplified by the views of the adults around her who push her to choose a certain path. Although these adults believe that the youth will follow in their footsteps, they don't understand how evil it is for children to be involved in the war and pitted against the enemy. They don’t realize they have created a monster.
The synopsis below takes the premise of the book into account.
The civil war between the North and the South is only a backdrop to the real story. Sarat is too young to understand that her father was killed at the hands of the Southerners, but the years she spent in a refugee camp with her mother and two other siblings has shaped her. The attack from the North was always imminent and the refugees lived under the constant threat of that happening. Sarat learns from adults and local militants how evil the North is and is introduced by her recruiter to what seems like the only reasonable action of fighting the North. When the attack occurs, Sarat is already a teen and she sees the brutality of the war firsthand. Her mother is killed and her brother is shot in the head, suffering severe brain damage. This is when Sarat decides that her recruiter was right. She needs to fight, and she becomes a very successful sniper.
Eventually, negotiations bring the divided America closer to peace. This point in the book is when the premise becomes clear. Sarat is against peace because she hasn’t experienced it and is now driven by the hatred of the North that’s been building inside her since early childhood.
She says the following to her friend: "All these old men want it to be like it was when they were young. But it'll never be like that again, and they'll never be young again, no matter what they do … But you and I… We're young, and we ain't bound by what they bound by."
She can accept peace, but it won't be the old peace where the North and South live together in harmony once again.
When Sarat eventually gets captured by the North and tortured in inhumane jail conditions like those in Guantanamo for seven years (be forewarned that it might be disturbing for some to read about) she learns that she was in fact betrayed by her recruiter. Later, the South additionally betrayed her by settling for peace with the North, giving her back her freedom. Sarat cannot accept this new reality and is persuaded to do the unthinkable. Something that would punish both sides. Her mind is made up that the world will never be as it once was.
In conclusion, I think the author uses Sarat as a cautionary tale. Although it is adults who start wars, the children and the youth become an integral part of it, caught in the whirlwind of the conflicts. The new generations learn about the war from people they trust, or experience its evil firsthand, and this shapes their view of the world. This causes a perpetual war that is being raged when the new generations, fueled with emotions and beliefs, repeat their ancestors' mistakes and take up arms.
It is also important to note that the North-South conflict is being fueled from the outside. It is of interest to another world power for the North and South of the USA to fight with each other in order for that power to thrive. This political twist makes it important to reflect on the internal conflicts of countries and who benefits from them.