I love adventure novels. When they’re done right. I think they’re best when they manage to tell every step of the way with no shortcuts like “Three days later”, and yet still retain our attention. In a book with this mission in this setting, you cannot spawn over a day or two. You have to know how they ate and where they managed to sleep. But at the same time, you need to have a knack of writing for being able to keep our interest despite this rule and attempting to keep things as realistic as possible. American Heart is the perfect example of one of these books. (This is an edited reupload from my old site.)
In this United States of America, year unknown, Muslims are now outlawed. The borders from Canada or Mexico or any modes of transport to a different continent are blocked off, and those that are captured are taken to an internment camp in Nevada. The argument the press gives is not only does this protect the radical people and their violent beliefs from others, but any haters can’t attack them, therefore making the world safer for everyone. Sad thing is the radical people and haters are the same, and they’re definitely not the ones being locked up. Meanwhile, in Hannibal, Missouri, 15-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams (rhymes a bit with Huckleberry Finn) lives with her discriminatory, scary and no-fun Aunt Jenny and attends a Baptist school that is about as old-fashioned as the first ever clock.
She also lives with her 11-year-old angel brother Caleb, who takes the news and the Muslim ban to heart and has a desire to make a change. Then one day Caleb ends up finding a fugitive hiding in her car named Sadaf, who has her picture and license plate broadcasted and being looked into. Sarah-Mary at first believes she should turn herself in, but all Sadaf wants to do is go to her husband and son who are safe in Toronto. For those who don’t live where I live and who aren’t very enthusiastic about geography (like me), that’s in Canada. Meanwhile, all her siblings have already been caught and detained. Kind of like how Katniss volunteered for Prim in The Hunger Games, Sarah-Mary decides to go against her personal gut, as well as basically the entire government system and her aunt, to do what her younger sibling would want, and the two mismatched girls (the Muslim one being in her thirties, I’ll admit, since you might’ve expected her to be a teen) ends up on a hike across the country, trying to avoid prying eyes, and the law.
Sarah-Mary is one of the most believable and yet satirical protagonists I’ve ever read, alongside Elloren Gardner. In a certain way, she’s clearly a troubled teenager who has managed to live away from the horrors for horrors of her own, and like certain Americans, is fine with the way the system works. She also has a negative opinion about religion because she takes things at face value, as well as how religion has taken away certain luxuries from her own life. She basically sounds like someone who watches bits of Fox News. And yet she’s somehow not instantly unlikeable. Readers should be able to look through her eyes and think about how their lives might have made them unintentionally negligent. Because she has this view of the world, she doesn’t completely trust a soul and throughout the book she tries to read other people’s thoughts and justify their actions and predict if something’s wrong. I loved every page of it. She has quite the intuition. Some novels will seem slow and unable to actually get to the point if they take too long exploring the backgrounds. Instead, the backgrounds add to what not only is Sarah-Mary thinking about but us readers too.
A similar sort of book is Mosquitoland, in that it has a runaway teen out on a cross-country mission, and I really enjoyed the experience, but I find it not near the complexity and heart-thumping madness of American Heart. For starters, like both books I never had any idea if the protagonists would be caught, but Mosquitoland had the aura of holding off any big confrontations till the third act. This one not as much. This book involves hitch-hiking, a type of storyline I’ve never read about from elsewhere at all. Early on in the book, Sadaf (who Sarah-Mary refers to as Chloe throughout the book because that’s their desired pseudonym for her during their mission) gets robbed by someone, and Sarah-Mary immediately goes into the house to figure out a way to get the money back. Immediately, the stakes were up to 11.
Every hitchhiker pickerupper also ends up an interesting character. One has suspicions but decides it must be the right thing to do. Another has the view that Islamophobia is not real when Muslims really want to kill you. Not that they actually do. I have a personal favourite, but I don’t want to spoil why that is. Obviously, the two protagonists have to lie, and there are enough moments where they feel like they made a fatal error to lose count of.
Sadaf is also hurt. She has an ear both clogged with water and feels like it has the tip of a pencil shoved up it, causing it to get infected. Not only does this bring a discomfort that makes you think about the book after you’ve put it down because you care about if she will be healed, but it also presents a timer because they can’t go to a doctor. There are restrictions that would reveal her as Muslim. That is what a compelling read is all about.
While The Hate U Give had a goal and a destination that had me in a speck more of anticipation, because of the constantly changing situations Sarah-Mary and Sadaf end up in, as well as problems that were going to be there but were plausibly avoided due to the worry of whatever problem was in front of them at that proper moment, American Heart’s was very close. I’ve read books before where a twist is thrown in, and this book had the atmosphere of being one of them. In the final 100 pages, it was impossible to put down and I genuinely cared about what all Sarah-Mary’s hard work and heartbreaks would add up to. There was also refreshingly no romance to muddy it.
The last thing I will mention is how there’s a slight similarity between this book and The Glass Arrow, a book I awarded a rare zero stars to. It was a book about girls being on the black market and seen as about as inferior as a homeless pregnant teen is to a software CEO. It wasn’t that I disliked that premise. I found that book too slow-paced, focused on grief of characters we never got to know, too many failed escapes, and after all that, there was a missed opportunity involved the hero trying to change the world. The similarity is how the protagonists are not trying to make an announcement or free the Muslims from the camps in Nevada. They’re just trying to make one of them safe. In this it’s better, for a few reasons. One, the book makes enough use of its plot to not make that side idea of making a grand statement to their world feel like a missed opportunity. Second, another theme of American Heart and The Glass Arrow is just how much, and at the same time how little, an individual can really do. Both characters feel there are things beyond their control, and that they’re not okay, but by doing what they’re doing, they’re rebelling against the system from a spiritual standpoint. The authorities say no, they say yeah. The Glass Arrow had that too, but it was unable to give that same feeling of rebellion and hope. American Heart was exactly what I was hoping for.
American Heart is an outstanding, criminally underrated novel of adventure and humanity, with a protagonist who’s not an instant hero. A modern-day Huckleberry Finn, it’s not here to have a grand white-saviour narrative. It’s the story of a teenage girl forced to do the right thing, and then learning how special it is to save someone in need.