American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: Written from the heart

Cover image If you inhabit the same neck of the Twitter woods I do, you may have spotted Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt some time ago.  It’s one of those books that’s been trailed for many months which usually presses my sceptical button but I have to say it’s the real deal. This extraordinary novel explores the theme of migration through the journey of Lydia and her son Luca who are fleeing Acapulco’s most powerful drug lord after escaping the massacre of their family.

Lydia is a bookseller who knows she must stock the books she doesn’t like in order to sell a few copies of those she loves. One day, a smartly turned out customer buys two of her favourites, engaging her in conversation. He becomes a regular and a friendship begins. Lydia is used to a degree of danger. She lives in one of Mexico’s most violent cities where shootings and elaborately mutilated corpses are commonplace. Her husband is a journalist, a profession whose members are regularly picked off by narcos. When he tells her about his latest piece, she understands that the suave, cultured Javier she thinks of as her friend is the subject of Sebastián’s profile. This is the man who orders the murder of sixteen members of Lydia’s family after the publication of the piece, a massacre that she and eight-year-old Luca escape by pure chance. They have no choice but to smother their grief and flee. There will be no help from the police, many of whom are in the pay of the cartels. Their only option is to head to the US in the hope of finding Lydia’s uncle who left years ago and has not been heard of since. As they head north, Lydia and Luca meet many migrants like themselves, jumping the tracks onto la bestia, the freight train that runs to the border.

Cummins’ quietly understated, immersive novel is both gripping and deeply moving. The stories of the other migrants they meet along the way, from Rebeca and Soldad whose beauty will cost them dear to Marisol whose teenage daughters were born in San Diego, are woven through Lydia and Luca’s as they adapt to life on the run. Both mother and son are strikingly well portrayed – Lydia resourceful and wary of everyone she meets, Luca, endearingly brave and empathetic despite the horrors that have been visited upon him. We come to know them intimately and to care deeply about what happens to them. The everyday atrocities perpetrated by the narcos are described in clean, plain language making them all the more shocking. Corruption, treachery and exploitation are common amongst migrants and officials, alike, yet set against this are the many small kindnesses of ordinary people, often putting their own safety at risk. Despite its unsparing realism, Cummins’ novel is not without hope: For every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption thinks Lydia when faced with yet another tale of depravity. It’s an astonishingly powerful book. Films often make my cry, books not so much: American Dirt is an exception. More immediate than Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, it feels written from the heart.

Tinder Press: London 2020 9781472261380 480 pages Hardback

34 thoughts on “American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: Written from the heart”

  1. I haven’t read American Dirt yet, but I did read this essay, which presents an alternative view of the novel (as, essentially, poverty porn written on the bodies of brown people by a white person):

    It’s also very interesting that Valeria Luiselli, who is Mexican, wrote a novel that many general readers have compared unfavourably to American Dirt, written by a non-Mexican. I understand that a lot of that is to do with Luiselli’s stylistic choices, which seem to hold the reader at arm’s length, but it still seems a little worrisome that readers respond so much more fulsomely to work on this subject from a white writer…

    1. Thanks for the link. Having read both, I suspect that you’re right about the very different style of both: Cummins’ novel struck me as much more immediate than Luiselli’s more cerebral, beautifully crafted book.

      1. And yet Cummins’s more “immediate” narrative—which she’s welcome to write, authors being allowed to adopt voices that belong to demographics other than their own—has been described by actual Mexicans as inaccurate, so the legitimacy of that sense of immediacy is immediately called into question.

    1. It is a difficult subject, Jacqui, and one which provokes a good deal of anger particulary on Twitter, not a platform which allows for nuanced debate. I can’t comment on the complaints about stereotypes but I have every sympathy with crticism about the lack of diversity in publishing, not just with regard to race but to class, too.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with your review. I’ve been distressed to see the way this book and author are being crucified on social media, most often by people who haven’t read the book or have taken a few of her words out of context (and while she’s not Mexican, she does identify as Latinx). I haven’t engaged with a lot of the negative reviews — mostly because, as always, I’ve run out of free NYT articles — but will try to read them to get a sense of what specifically has been perceived as stereotypical or appropriating. I don’t like being made to feel as if I’m some unenlightened reader who can only appreciate a book on a superficial level and is blind to the cultural ramifications. The whole discussion is so vitriolic that no one seems to be acknowledging that the book might do good by opening minds and hearts.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. It’s a very thorny subject but once ‘debate’ begins to be conducted on Twitter moderation vanishes. Oprah’s announcement seems to have thrown another spanner into the works. I thought it was an excellent, heartfelt book just as I thought Valeria Luiselli’s was – just different.

  3. I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on the content, but I appreciate the conversation happening on twitter that’s more focused on the publishing industry’s decision to champion this book. 7 figure deal for the author, extraordinary marketing and publicity, oprah,
    Movie deal. For a white woman writing about Mexicans. Which, like Elle says, she’s more than welcome to do. But I think the conversation would be different if she wasn’t being hailed as the next Steinbeck, or thurs marketing wasn’t quite so frenzied. Some of the words and images being ridiculed on twitter surely are taken out of context but they present a pattern of…. obliviousness at best.

    1. I think you’re right about the marketing, Laura. Quite aside from the controversy surrounding this title which, I suspect, reflects the lack of divceristy in the industry, it so often means that other books of equal merit slip away unnoticed.

  4. It’s very hard to get away from this book, particularly over the last few days, so it’s interesting to read your nuanced review. I’m sure that the fact that it is being talked about everywhere on social media will help it regardless.

  5. Good point Susan. There’s a lot of emotion going on but some of it seems to be missing the point that some of the criticism is about the way some authors get high visibility and big publishing deals while others, who have written about the same topic, are left to struggle

  6. I don’t like the way the author is being so heavily criticised either – what was she supposed to do?Say no to the book deal and the biggest opportunity in her career?

  7. I think it’s risky to suggest that because some members of a community feel that a specific work of art doesn’t reflect their personal experiences, that those individual voices are spokespeople for that entire community, whereas other members of that community might find meaning in that same work of art and those are also valid responses. There are big, overarching issues about the publishing industry which do come into play here, but isn’t an individual reader, who has a relationship with the book they’re reading, entitled to either feel or not feel a sense of immediacy with the way a story is told?

    1. There has been so much said, written and shouted about this novel over the past few weeks but the one thing I think most of us can agree on is that the publishing industry needs to look at diversity (or the lack of it) within its own ranks, both in terms of ethnicity and class.

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