Digging Into American Dirt
This mostly believable story brings the migrant journey to the masses
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a page-turner. A young woman with an adorable son wise beyond his years plus assorted extra characters running from the cartel, poverty, or other violent circumstances, kept me turning pages until the end. Would they all escape?
Honestly, I never understood the backlash. Fiction authors very typically write about topics to which they have no personal connection. As Stephen King said in one interview, “…it’s called imagination.” Cummins struggled with her decision to write the story and did not approach it lightly, conducting four years of extensive interviews and research. It’s not as if Cummins is totally exempt from hardship. Her spouse was undocumented and according to her Author’s Note at the end of the book, had “no legal route available…until we got married.” Also, her own family suffered as the victims of a brutal crime that she details in her memoir A Rip in Heaven.
However, just when I am feeling Cummins’s good intentions, her book jacket barbed wire manicure left me puzzled.
I kept faithfully reading — following Lydia and son Luca on their journey. Two issues with the book nagged at me until the end.
My younger daughter is adopted from Mexico and we traveled there as a family numerous times. As the years passed, we took holidays and vacations in various Mexican cities. Both of my girls studied and or worked there in college. Before and during those visits, I had more than enough time to read about Mexico as the deadliest country for journalists — outside of a war zone. It’s with that knowledge that I offer my take on the premise of American Dirt.
For Sebastian, Lydia’s Acapulco reporter husband, to have completely underestimated the el jefe Javier’s reaction to his newspaper cartel exposé, was totally not believable.
For Lydia — a book store owner and the journalist’s wife — to be blissfully ignorant of Javier’s cartel identity as he repeatedly visited her store with gifts and bad poetry…was a stretch beyond imagination.
Despite these two faulty foundation story facts, the rest of the plot held together, highlighting the migrant journey to an audience that would otherwise never even give it a thought.
Lydia and her son flee the violence and begin a tense journey el Norte. Along the way, different types of characters show up presenting a variety of complications and subplots. There were quite a few to keep track of and, near the end of the book, I didn’t care much about them.
My daughter had her own brush with cartel violence when three decapitated bodies, their heads stuffed in sombreros and brooms across their chests, appeared in the driveway of her study abroad home. She wrote it off as “violence happens everywhere.” She was supposed to be “safe” in a home approved by the university. Pictures in the newspaper left me speechless. Terrified, we reacted to this very deliberate and precise message from the who-knows-what nefarious group — by sending her to Spain to complete her studies.
The violence detailed by Cummins is real. The Quinceanera retaliation massacre seemed an accurate portrayal of Mexico’s relationship with the press. However, the bulk of American Dirt is not about the violence itself, but its aftermath.
What choices do the living need to make now? The unforgiving migrant journey, including detailed descriptions of its hardships and the constant danger, has now been understood by a larger and diverse set of readers. That’s a good thing.
Is our world ready to read this story now with a bit more love and acceptance than when Cummins first released the book? Let’s hope so.