I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down. Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.
American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.
Following Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.
Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions. As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end. Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.
The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.
The story is a thrilling page-turner. Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely. As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:
“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”
However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds. Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.” And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).
Right, this is fiction, isn’t it? Not a documentary. Is the danger that some readers will forget? Maybe…