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American Dirt

Review

American Dirt

I first started hearing about Jeanine Cummins’ new novel months ago. Blurbed by the likes of Stephen King, John Grisham and Sandra Cisneros, her book about the perils of immigrating to the United States from Mexico and Central and South America was bound to make a splash even before it was selected by Oprah for her Book Club this week. AMERICAN DIRT aims to elicit readers’ sympathy for the desperation of those making this perilous journey by tracing one family’s story.

Lydia should know more than most about the havoc being wreaked on her home country by powerful and ruthless drug cartels and gangs. After all, her husband Sebastián is a journalist on the narco beat, bravely writing about the crimes of these dangerous organizations. Unlike many other journalists, though, Sebastián has largely escaped death threats and harassment from the crime bosses about whom he writes. Even when he’s about to publish his biggest exposé to date, Lydia assures him that he’ll be safe. How does she know? Because --- as she’s only recently learned --- the head of Acapulco’s newest and most notorious criminal organization, Los Jardineros, is none other than Javier, her favorite customer at the bookstore she owns. Javier is charming, sensitive and more than a little in love with Lydia. So she finds it impossible to believe that he could harm the people she loves.

"AMERICAN DIRT, which reads much like a thriller --- complete with a truly heart-pounding opening chapter --- undoubtedly will prompt many to consider the immigration crisis in a new and more urgent way..."

That assumption is shattered in an instant, in the novel’s opening pages, as Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca, hide desperately in a shower stall, trying to escape the massacre that kills not only Sebastián but also Lydia’s mother and the rest of their extended family, gathered for a family celebration. A message from Javier’s men makes it clear that neither Lydia nor Luca is safe, not as long as they remain in Mexico. Consequently, they are soon making a frantic attempt to flee for their lives, embarking on the same hazardous journey attempted by thousands of others about whom Lydia has only ever read before.

Indeed, a significant part of Lydia’s journey is a psychological one, as she is forced to come to terms with her own relative privilege and the way she had originally conceived of others who had been forced to flee their home countries, such as when she realizes that “it’s not a disguise at all. She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are.” Certainly part of Cummins’ goal here is to individualize the stories of migrants, not only through Lydia and Luca’s stories but also through the individuals they encounter along their journey. The narrative is, at times, more successful in this endeavor, but often less so, as Cummins’ descriptions continually reinforce Lydia’s self-impression as being somehow different (or even better than?) the nameless other travelers who are continually referred to only as “migrants” throughout.

AMERICAN DIRT, which reads much like a thriller --- complete with a truly heart-pounding opening chapter --- undoubtedly will prompt many to consider the immigration crisis in a new and more urgent way, especially given its high-profile coverage. Even better would be if the novel not only sparks conversations about these issues but also leads readers to dive deeper into the questions about which she writes. Perhaps they will be inspired to seek out the Mexican and Mexican American writers of nonfiction upon which Cummins’ fiction leans heavily, as well as the memoirs and fiction penned by authors whose own lived experience informs their work.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2020

American Dirt
by Jeanine Cummins

  • Publication Date: January 21, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250209765
  • ISBN-13: 9781250209764