Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 21, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Received as a gift
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

It’s impossible to read American Dirt without awareness of the controversy surrounding this book seeping into the reading experience. Which is okay — it’s controversial for a reason, and I actually had no intention of reading this book, until a family member gave it to me as a gift. So, with hesitation, I jumped in.

American Dirt is a story of pain and violence. Lydia’s life is permanently ravaged when a cartel murder squad invades her family’s backyard celebration. Purely by chance, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca survive, while sixteen other members of her family, including her husband, are killed. Recognizing their immediate danger, Lydia flees with Luca, knowing that the cartel won’t stop hunting them and that their only chance at safety is to head north to the US and try to cross the border.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the escalating violence in Acapulco as well as across all of Mexico, as the cartels exert more and more power. Lydia’s husband is a reporter who specializes in profiling cartel violence. Lydia herself runs a bookstore, where she ends up befriending a seemingly kind, intellectual man… who turns out to be none other than the head of the cartel ruling Acapulco. When Sebastian’s expose of Javier runs, it sets off a course of tragedy and violence that leads directly to the massacre of their family.

Lydia and Luca’s journey is harrowing, as they join the crowds of migrants riding La Bestia, the network of freight trains that run through Mexico, which migrants risk life and limb to ride atop in the hopes of making it north. Along the way, they face physical danger from the train itself as well as severe threats from police and cartel soldiers who round up migrants and inflict torture, death, and demands for ransom as part of their standard operating procedures.

Is this a good book? Not really, no. It’s dramatic for sure, and a compelling read, but it’s hard for me to actually praise it. Despite problems (more on those in a second), it’s a fast read that’s hard to put down once started. Yet the book really is more melodrama than anything else, indulging in nonstop violence and horrific situations, and presenting a portrait of Mexico as a place with not one ounce of safety or happiness.

The friendship (almost romantic) with Javier is unnecessary and feel soap opera-worthy. What are the odds that the wife of the journalist who exposes him would also be this man’s good friend and close confidante?. Why does Lydia, a woman grieving her slaughtered family, need to be also burdened by what-ifs about putting trust in Javier’s friendship?

Teen sisters Soledad and Rebeca become traveling companions for Lydia and Luca. We’re hit over the hit repeatedly with how remarkably beautiful the girls are — and, the book makes clear, how their beauty singles them out to become targets of rapists, again and again and again throughout the book. Why is their beauty relevant? Don’t women not at this pinnacle of beauty also get raped? Not in American Dirt.

The coyote who takes Lydia, Luca, and a group of others across the border is, of course, one of the good ones. He’s a coyote with a soul. Despite his tough talk and enforcement of rules, one tragedy one this journey in particular is enough to transform him and change him permanently. Really? As if he’s never lost anyone on a crossing before?

These are just a few examples, but I found the whole story to be over the top and voyeuristic. I could go on (why does it matter that Luca is a geography protege?), but I’ll turn instead to my other annoyances with this book, namely the writing.

First, the point of view shifts from paragraph to paragraph between Luca and Lydia, with no sense of why, and it’s confusing and distracting. Lydia will be thinking about something, and it’s not until midway through the following paragraph that a reference to Mami alerts us that we’re now seeing Luca’s perspective. Other character’s points-of-view are randomly included, seemingly so that the author can offer us first-person narratives of terrible experiences that Lydia wasn’t present for.

Also, the writing itself and the author’s descriptions are often over the top or simply incomprehensible. A few examples, but I could really open up the book practically at random and find more:

She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother.

Her face is splotchy but dry, and there are dark circles beneath her eyes. Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fisherman have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek. Mami is contorted.

In the half-light left over from Soledad’s corona, Rebeca glimmers like a secret sun.

Your mileage may vary, but repeatedly throughout the book, I had to pause to try to turn the author’s imagery into a picture in my mind that actually made sense. It didn’t always work.

I’m not directly addressing the controversy about the author, I realize, and that’s simply because it’s been covered elsewhere in depth. For more, I recommend:
The Seattle Review of Books: “The Dirt on American Dirt”
Tropics of Meta: Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck
Vulture: “Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?”
New York Times: “American Dirt is Proof the Publishing Industry is Broken”

I with the author had explained more about her sources or the research that went into writing this book. The migrant experience is a compelling and important topic, but I don’t feel that American Dirt is the right book for really learning about it.

It does, however, make me want to seek out more authentic accounts by #ownvoices authors. I know there’s a lot to learn — I just don’t think American Dirt is the book to learn from.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

  1. Hi Lisa, thank you for reading and reviewing American Dirt. I’ve heard a lot about it, but haven’t read it yet. I think I will pass. I had a hard time visualizing the descriptions you cited!

  2. Thanks for the review. My book club picked it for January and I just started reading it today. I read a wide variety of fiction and have a thick skin for the types of author mistakes you have described. I always tell myself–This is fiction. I am sure Ms. Cummins was not anticipating being singled out by Oprah and two seconds later being the center of controversy. I never have understand the need to beat a book to death. I hope to be entertained.

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