Laura Moriarty’s new dystopian novel, American Heart, pays homage to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The book opens in Hannibal, Missouri, when a 15-year-old white girl, Sarah-Mary, reluctantly agrees to aid a fugitive woman of Middle Eastern descent escape to Canada. This woman takes an alias, Chloe, and is on the run for breaking a new American law requiring Muslims to register with the government.
As they travel north to the border, Sarah-Mary and Chloe--in danger of being exposed when they check into motels--pass time in roadside cafes, hitch rides, and finally, seek passage across the Canadian border. Sarah-Mary questions her loyalty to Chloe again and again because the larger forces at play are beyond her understanding. But she is also impressionable and adopts the passion of the newly converted when she comes to understand the precarious circumstances Chloe is in.
Moriarty’s book has something else in common with Huck Finn: controversy. She has been accused of cultural appropriation because she’s written a white savior story featuring a Muslim American from the Middle East. Zadie Smith recently made an argument in support of all storytellers: As an artist, she wants to get into the head of every size, shape, and color of person. However, as a reader she doesn’t have to read anything she chooses not to.
I chose to read this novel expecting a great story and it delivered. I was also immersed in the fragile world of two Americans who get deeply into the other’s head, resulting in growth, empathy and understanding.