American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins tells one of the most important stories of our time. A story of heroism and bravery, of fear and unfairness, and of what it means to live a life to its fullest.
Lydia and Luca are the two main characters of American Dirt: an upper-middle class mother and son from Acapulco. Their lives are turned upside down on page one when their entire family is murdered by an infamous gang. The pair narrowly escape from the wreckage alive and quickly turn from their quiet lives to become migrants in a sea of rage and despair. Their destination is el norte, but they have no idea how they’re going to get there or of the terrors they will encounter on the way.
On their journey, Lydia and Luca befriend others who are fleeing dangerous and unstable lives for the hope of something better. While their journey is a harrowing one and the messages that come from it are important, where American Dirt falls short is in its character development and plot-line. The characters all have what seem like interesting and exciting backgrounds that the reader gains access to; however, it often feels like the way in which we learn about those characters is through an information dump rather than through a slow and meticulous crafting of the characters and their relationships to one another. People die, but never is the reader close enough to the character or the action to feel the anguish of that death. These backgrounds and characterizations also prove to be stereotypical in every way. Similarly, the plot points in the book appear action packed and empirically should evoke terror, but they feel very scripted and somewhat too easily escaped. In this way, the important messages of American Dirt, while still visible and pertinent, get somewhat lost in the book’s almost didactic, staccato feel.
Overall, Jeanine Cummins’ book is one that tells a story of paramount importance at a time when migration and migrants are such buzz words in our contemporary culture. It becomes problematic when told by someone who lives outside of the reality of what it means to be Mexican, Mexican-American, or an asylum seeker. The issues brought up in the book need attention called to them, but the questions remain as to whether this was the best way or best person to tell this story. Cummins herself addresses this in the afterword of her novel, but defends her decision to write the book based on personal experience, heritage, and the importance of the story itself.
Slated for release from Flatiron Books in January of 2020, you can preorder a copy of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins at your local independent bookstore.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.