Monday, February 24, 2020

Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I read this on the recommendation of a friend long before any of the controversy erupted. Although I was a little conflicted about reading it (because of my interest in the topic rather than because of the soon to be conflagration of controversy about authorial heritage, suggested stereotypes, lack of diversity in publishing, and advance money to summarize most of the complaints), I had previously read and enjoyed Cummins' novel The Outside Boy so I decided to take the advice of my friend and another author who both read it and praised it highly. I have since read and listened to much of the criticism as well. There are layers upon layers to excavate here but I'm not going to do that. I don't have the background to address certain of the accusations so I'm only going to address this as a work of fiction. And let me say, it was eye-opening, it was personal, and it was a book that made this reader want to keep turning pages to see if this fierce, protective, and desperate mother and her young son escaped with their lives. If Jeanine Cummins intended to write a completely propulsive novel that opened a dialogue, she did that.

Lydia lives in Acapulco with her investigative journalist husband and their son Luca. She owns a bookstore and the family is pretty firmly middle class but her story doesn't open with these mundane facts of her life. It opens with her huddling in a bathroom with Luca as a drug cartel guns down the rest of her family during a backyard cookout celebration of her niece's quinceanara. Lydia knows that once the head of the cartel knows she and her son have survived, they will not be safe. She knows this because she knows this man. Javier was her customer at the bookstore and he was her friend, at least until her husband published an article about him, an article Javier cannot forgive. So although Lydia's numb from losing her entire family in one horrific afternoon, she knows that she and Luca have to flee. The drug cartel's tentacles are long though and although she ostensibly has far more resources than many people making their way to the US, she cannot draw attention to herself and her son, fumbling and haltingly making their way through the country along the migrant path, encountering the breadth of humanity, both good and understanding people as well as exploitative and awful people. She is driven to protect her son at all costs, to get him to safety, and to help him process everything he's witnessed, both the loss of family and the terrible and terrifying things he sees along the way as they join the steady stream of migrants making their way north.

Lydia and Luca have lost everything, including their heretofore unexamined sense of safety and this revelation makes the unexpected (or even pre-warned about) hardships that much harder emotionally as they move forward toward a life that they never wanted but have no option to seek. Lydia is perhaps a little naive as a character but then, who isn't when living a life of unconcern and relative ease? This naivete comes up hard against the need to keep Luca safe as they travel and as she is forced to see clearly both the humanity and the inhumanity in those around her on the journey. The trip is arduous and dangerous and the reasons people from all over Central and South America attempt the journey are myriad with Cummins offering small snippets of only a few reasons in the characters of Lydia and Luca, the Honduran sisters, the former student whose visa expired, the mother trying to get back to her American children, the brothers and their sons from Veracruz. Until almost the end of the novel, most of the characters stay fairly anonymous as Lydia guards her story and her identity, fearful to trust.  This makes the novel that much more insular and paranoid feeling, as akin to Lydia's own feelings as possible.  She and Luca are the main focus and the novel is narrated around their perceptions and worries. It is fast paced and action oriented and although there are two very dramatic happenings close to the end that push the story a bit over the top, it never minimizes the actual danger involved in crossing into the US or on the long journey to get there. The obstacles to making it all the way, in some cases thousands of miles, are numerous and in presenting this, the novel felt revelatory, especially to an audience privileged enough, like Lydia once was, never to have had to consider it. The news may talk about the danger of the border crossing but it doesn't do a particularly good job at acknowledging that this crossing is only one in a series of dangers, not the first, nor even the last. I found this a very worthwhile read. It made me think and consider in ways that I hadn't before and I think that aspect might be getting lost in all the outrage and discussions and I think that's a shame.

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts....I have been torn about reading this one as well. I did purchase it last weekend and look forward to reading.


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