For those of you who have had your eyes opened by Don Winslow’s trilogy dealing with the Mexican drug cartels you will not be disappointed by Jeanine Cummins’ new book AMERICAN DIRT. Cummins offers a number of motivations in writing her novel. Chief among them is that there are numerous books that depict the underside and violence of the drug cartels which contribute to the worst stereotypes involving Mexico. Cummins on the other hand wants to deal with the flipside of that narrative, describing the experiences of ordinary people who for their own personal reasons must leave their families and past lives to escape northward. How does a woman manage to escape a place like Acapulco where the story begins and take her child to an unknown destination facing possible horrors that they have only heard about in passing? For Cummins, these stories have been overlooked, but she argues that all migrants need a voice as they are people with needs, dreams just like others and she intends to give them a platform.
Cummins begins her novel by metaphorically hitting her readers with a blunt object. It makes the reader sit up and pay close attention and continue to read about another senseless killing that the Mexican police have no intention of solving. The opening scenes deal with a mass revenge killing of sixteen people that Lydia and her eight year old son Luca must hid in the corner of a bathtub in order to escape. Immediately, Lydia realizes that her husband, mother, aunt, and cousins are dead and that she and her son must leave as fast as possible before they are next because she knows who the killer is, though is unsure why her family is victimized.
Lydia first met the man who ordered the massacre in the bookstore she owned in Acapulco. One day, Javier Crespo Fuentes, known as La Lechuza, enters the store and after browsing the stacks he chooses a number of items that are Lydia’s favorites. After chatting it appears that they share a love of books and over the next few weeks he visits the store, buys more books, shares his poetry, and Lydia believes they have developed a close friendship. Lydia’s husband, Sebastian Perez Delgado is a reporter who specializes in unmasking Mexican cartels and in this case unbeknownst to Lydia he has written an article about the head of Los Jardineros, Lydia’s new friend. Once she learns who Fuentes is and the carnage and death, he has wrought she is conflicted. First, she denies her friend is involved and then once the murder of her family takes place, she realizes she and Luca must run.
Despite what she has been through Lydia’s approach to Fuentes is puzzling as she tries to balance her family’s needs with the truth, and the fact that Fuentes has fallen in love with her. The question is why she tortures herself emotionally after all that has occurred, a question the novel really does not address. Half-way through the story Lydia learns why she and her son have become fugitives from Fuentes’ cartel and his contacts across Mexico. From this point on it dawns on Lydia that she and Luca are the target of a nationwide search where police, social services, and other governmental institutions are in the pocket of the cartels.
Cummins graphically recounts Lydia and Luca’s journey as they leave Acapulco employing La Bestia, cargo trains, as they ride on top of the cars along with hundreds of other migrants from all over Central America and Mexico who are trying for a new life in the United States. Cummins has produced a gripping story that in many ways is unconventional as she tells it from the viewpoint of the migrant experience. Lydia suffers from a great deal of guilt as she sees herself as responsible for the death of her family and now all she can do revolves around saving Luca. For years she pitied migrants, now she had become one. Cummins’ portrayal is fraught with danger as Lydia and Luca must jump on to moving trains from overpasses, travel at night by themselves, and deal with “supposed” government migrant agents who are really predators who want to sell young girls and woman into sex slavery, rob them of their few possessions, and if they are of no use kill them.
The author creates a number of moving and important characters. Soledad and Rebeca are beautiful sixteen and fourteen years old running from the dangers of Honduras who join with Lydia and Luca to form a quasi-family. Along the way there are a number of people who help them, a doctor, priests, and peasant families all assist. But there is danger around every corner. The goal for Lydia and Luca is to reach an uncle in Denver, for Soledad and Rebeca they have an uncle in Maryland – however reaching those destinations seems almost impossible as they run into a number of nefarious characters along with those who want to help. The question is who do you trust?
(The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. )
Cummins shifts the stories chronology a number of times to facilitate providing the background history of each of the main characters past. As she does what takes place at the outset of the novel makes more and more sense, even in a convoluted way. But the question must be asked, does the author reach her goal of making the reader aware of what is going on at our southern border, through the eyes of those who desperately want to escape their homeland for a better and safer life – that answer must be yes.*
*I would recommend Lauren Groff’s review of the book, “American Dirt Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis,” New York Times, March 6, 2020 for an excellent analysis of what Cummins’ wanted to achieve and if she was able to do so. It follows below:
‘American Dirt’ Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis
By Lauren Groff
- Published Jan. 19, 2020Updated March 6, 2020
- AMERICAN DIRT
By Jeanine Cummins
A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house. The novel opens into a tense and vivid scene in Acapulco, the massacre of an entire Mexican family during a quinceañera cookout. The only survivors are a mother and her 8-year-old son, who must flee the narcos who spend the rest of the book hunting them down. When the boy’s mother tackles him so they can hide behind a shower wall in a bathroom, he bites his lip and a drop of blood splatters on the ground.
“Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca’s blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.”
As the anxiety-riddled mother of an 8-year-old — as a person who has nightmares after every report of a mass shooting — I felt this scene in the marrow of my bones.
But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.
Yet the narrative is so swift, I don’t think I could have stopped reading. I kept turning the pages, following Lydia and Luca, the mother and son, as they flee through Mexico, gathering a misfit band of other migrants. We learn that Lydia had been a bookstore owner, the wife of a journalist who infuriated the wrong people, and Luca a tiny prodigy of geography. They are hunted by Los Jardineros, the cartel that killed Lydia’s family. They are robbed by corrupt police officers. They learn how to ride La Bestia, the train on which hundreds of migrants die every year. They ultimately find themselves in Nogales, where they must cross the desert by foot at night with a coyote to arrive in the United States. Their painful and thirsty hours in the desert haunt me still.
I have been trained by my education, reading and practice of literary fiction to believe that good novels have some titration of key elements: obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview. The world of “American Dirt” is too urgent for humor or for much character development beyond Lydia’s own. There is a single clear moral voice entirely on the side of the migrants, because the book’s purpose is fiercely polemical, which I would have understood even without the author’s note in which Cummins writes that she intended “to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear,” so that people who are not migrants can “remember: These people are people.” Polemical fiction is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world; polemical fiction is designed to make its readers act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision.
All of this is to say that “American Dirt” contains few of the aspects that I have long believed are necessary for successful literary fiction; yet if it did have them, this novel wouldn’t be nearly as propulsive as it is. The book’s simple language immerses the reader immediately and breathlessly in the terror and difficulty of Lydia and Luca’s flight. The uncomplicated moral universe allows us to read it as a thriller with real-life stakes. The novel’s polemical architecture gives a single very forceful and efficient drive to the narrative. And the greatest animating spirit of the novel is the love between Lydia and Luca: It shines its blazing light on all the desperate migrants and feels true and lived.
“American Dirt” seems deeply aware of the discrepancies in power between the desperate people it describes, and both the writer who created it and the reader intended to receive it; the book offers itself as testament to the fact Cummins has worked to decrease this power differential. The major objection to cultural appropriation has always been about the abuse of power: inadequate research, halfhearted imagination and a lack of respect, the privileged assumption of the right to speak on behalf of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In her afterword, Cummins relates that she did tremendous research, traveling extensively, interviewing many people, sitting with her material in utter seriousness for four years. Still, writers like Myriam Gurba have brought up concerns with the novel, saying that it trucks in stereotypes of Mexico as a place of danger while the United States is always envisioned as a place of safety, that these stereotypes could inadvertently give fuel to the far right in their contempt for Mexicans. At the same time, other Mexican-American and Latina writers are speaking out in support of the book, people like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Erika Sánchez.
It’s true that because this book’s aims are polemical, its intended audience is clearly not the migrants described in it, who — having already lived its harrowing experience — would have no need to relive it in fiction. “American Dirt” is written for people like me, those native to the United States who are worried about what is happening at our southern border but who have never felt the migrants’ fear and desperation in their own bodies. This novel is aimed at people who have loved a child and who would fight with everything they have to see that child be allowed a good future. Cummins’s stated intention is not to speak for migrants but to speak while standing next to them, loudly enough to be heard by people who don’t want to hear.
Fiction is the art of delicately sketching the internal lives of others, of richly and believably projecting readers into lives not their own. Writers can and should write about anything that speaks urgently to them, but they should put their work into the world only if they’re able to pull off their intentions responsibly. In the end, I find myself deeply ambivalent. Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism; at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me. When I think of the migrants at the border, suffering and desperate, I think of Lydia and Luca, and feel something close to bodily pain. “American Dirt” was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghosts into the reader’s real flesh.
Lauren Groff’s most recent book is “Florida,” a story collection.
By Jeanine Cummins
383 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.