Laura Moriarty’s American Heart takes place in an alternate-universe, one where Muslim Americans are rounded up and moved to internment camps in Nevada. Its heroine is Sarah-Mary, a fifteen-year old American girl who seldom questions the world around her. That is, until she meets Sadaf, an Iranian immigrant professor who’s trying to reach Canada to avoid being sent to the camps. This unlikely pair must hitchhike across a fictional America that’s both different and entirely familiar as they journey to the safety of Canada.
The cross country trip the two take is fraught with challenges from relying on the kindness of strangers to seeing the darker side humanity when it’s swept away by propaganda. Being an impressionable teenager, Sarah-Mary is no stranger to this as she’s surrounded by several less-than-stellar female figures. Her Aunt Jenny is a super religious Christian who monitors her every move, Mrs. Harrison is a teacher who doesn’t seem to understand the fundamentals of expanding young minds, and even Sarah-Mary’s own mother fails to be a reliable role model for our young protagonist.
Sarah-Mary’s journey with Sadaf starts to show that everything she’s seen on the news or read about the Muslim internment camps in Nevada in’t entirely honest. The camps were setup to protect people from the “terrorist threat” and Muslims were being rounded up to keep them safe from the people and vice-versa. Sarah-Mary comes to learn not only is this a lie, but the world around her isn’t as straightforward as she originally thought. In helping Sadaf, Sarah-Mary is helping herself too, gaining a better understanding of people and have empathy for others.
And that’s the thing like about her, Sarah-Mary acts like a teenager, she’s not put on a pedestal where the rest of the world is dumber and she’s smarter. She’s ignorant most of the time, but I don’t think by choice. She accepts what the authority figures in her life tell her and draws her own conclusions from her limited experiences. Throughout the book Sarah-Mary makes constant references to news stories she’s seen and books she’s read, even quoting a paper she did at one point to explain her thinking.
As the older stand-in parental figure, Sadaf helps her to understand that just because someone has different religious beliefs and views doesn’t make them a bad person. In fact, Sarah-Mary eventually comes to learn that’s the beauty of living in the United States; people can live their lives freely without fear of persecution. Or, at least, that’s how it used to be.
As a engineering professor Sadaf is highly intelligent, having already overcome many obstacles in her life, but in that same vein she’s not as forceful as I thought she would be. Too often she lets Sarah-Mary call the shots about where they need to go or catch a ride to the next town. Due to her accent, Sadaf isn’t able to talk throughout much of the book, relying on her young friend to get them across America. When she does speak, however, the two have interesting conversations about religion and the reason Sadaf moved to the United States and the challenges she faced moving to a new country. Even though I know she’s silent throughout much of the book for a reason, I do wish she had spoken more, because she’s a fascinating person.
American Heart explores themes we seldom see in YA novels. As a protagonist Sarah-Mary is the type of person set in her ways, a teenager still learning about a world different than the one she was comfortable in. One of the most chilling scenes is when she witnesses both the death of a man trying to do the right thing, and the mob mentality that follows. She’s horrified by how the mob cheers and celebrates both death and ignorance, forcing her to confront many of the “truths” she’d held in her own short life.
The book isn’t perfect, as there are story faults that pulled me out of the world it’s attempting to build. Conversations between Sarah-Mary and Sadaf can feel stilted at times, almost as if we’re being lectured by dialogue that doesn’t flow naturally. Other times people they meet along the way didn’t feel like real people, but placeholders that started out as a thought but were never fully fleshed out. In that same vein, people do speak differently and my observations may stem from personal experiences. To be fair, I did learn a lot from these conversations, and there were some characters I wish Sarah-Mary and Sadaf spent more time with.
With American Heart Laura Moriarty is attempting to convey how the power of empathy and experience may be enough to counter learned prejudice and propaganda, regardless of what surface differences appear to divide them. Those willing to give it a chance may find it both an enlightening and eye-opening look at distorted values and upbringing, especially as it’s telling a story we seldom see in YA fiction. It’s certainly generated quite a bit of controversy already, so in this way the conversation has already begun. While hardly faultless, I highly recommend just dipping down into its world and draw your own conclusions about this American novel.