American Dirt Will Shatter You

American Dirt (2020)
By Jeanine Cummins
Flatiron Books, 400 pages

You think you can imagine what it’s like to live in a place where drug cartels dominate. You probably can’t. Perhaps you’ve read about a single parent who risks life and limb to get a child to safety and think that you’d do that too. You have no idea what that entails. Maybe you believe that illegal immigrants should be the responsibility of the nations from which they flee. You are clueless.

American Dirt is a shattering novel that will open your eyes and break your heart. It opens in Acapulco, where Lydia Quixano is enjoying a backyard quinceañera party for her niece Yénifer. She and her 8-year-old son Luca have just gone inside when they hears menacing voices and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. She grabs Luca and they silently cower behind a shower wall while one of the gunmen urinates in a toilet several feet away. Only when all noise ends does she dare venture out, though she knows what she will find. Sixteen family members lie in puddles of blood, including her mother and her husband. Lydia knows this was a ritual slaughter by Los Jardineros (The Gardeners) occasioned by an exposé written by her husband/ reporter Sebastién detailing how the cartel took over the entire state of Guerrero. She knows also that she and Luca must flee immediately, though there is no guaranteed sanctuary in all of Mexico.This begins a 2,540-mile flight to el norte.

Call it the new Grapes of Wrath, complete with a few interstitial chapters that give us needed background. We learn that Lydia knows who ordered the hit: cartel head Javier Crespo Fuentes, who was her friend before he was her pursuer. Lydia owns a bookstore in Acapulco where a well-dressed older man dropped in to buy and discuss books. He seemed a lonely intellectual who cared only for his daughter at college. Javier even shared his poetry with Lydia before she learned he was La Lechuza, “The Owl,” who runs Los Jardineros­. (His nickname comes from his heavy black-framed glasses, a detail several nitpicking readers missed.)

This would be the time to say that only desperate people climb aboard moving freight trains or leap from overpasses onto the tops of them. Hitching a ride on La Bestia (The Beast) is just one of many ways one can die on the way to el norte. You can also be killed by cartel spies whose reach extends to the U.S. border, or be turned in to the police or the military by nervous citizens, which amounts to the same thing as scores of them are cartel moles. Fellow travelers can be equally dangerous. Lydia is warned that everyone will be robbed or extorted at least once and that she can expect to be raped. Plus, she needs food, water, and appropriate clothing for herself and her son. Luca is a precocious geography whiz, but he’s still an 8-year-old.

Cummins leavens despair with snapshots of those whose humanity is greater than fear for their own safety: helpful villagers who assist emigres, nurses and doctors, immigrant rights activists, and nuns, priests, and missionaries. And some travelers are kind. Lydia’s journey is long, but she and Luca meet two teenage Guatemalan girls who have traveled even further. Survive the trip to the border with Nogales, Arizona, and you can peer through a fence at America, but you can’t cross without documentation. You need to find a coyote to smuggle you across in places where you have the best chance of avoiding INS officials and MAGA vigilantes on a mission to make sure Mexicans don’t sneak in. Getting to the relative safety of a Tucson-bound van involves several days of hiking though the desert and avoiding all the things that can kill you there, including dehydration, rattlesnakes, flash floods, injuries, and cold nighttime temperatures. Keep up, or be left behind. A dozen will venture forth, but not all will make it.  

Some books are page-turners whose pleasures you wish to unveil. Proceed with caution with American Dirt. It is unrelenting in forcing you into the decision-making shoes of everyone in the book. At times it feels like the lifeboat moral dilemma in which hard decisions must be made as to who lives and who dies. What is the titular American “dirt?” Is it the literal soil? Partly, but a better question is, “Who is American dirt?” A good follow-up is, “Who decides the worth of any individual?”

Perhaps you’ve heard the novel is controversial. Some have accused Cummins of writing in brown face because apparently someone with an Irish-sounding surname can’t write about Latinos. Although Cummins has a Puerto Rican grandmother, she has been charged with both cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Still others have dismissed the book as trivial just because it was one of Oprah Winfrey’s book club selections. All of this is utter nonsense. First of all, a fiction writer is free to draw upon any materials she wishes; second, it is political correctness run amok to insist that no outsider can possibly understand the plight of others. It’s called empathy; look it up. I don’t give a damn if Cummins got a few things wrong. American Dirt is a powerful book that’s aimed at your soul, not your inner documentarian.

Rob Weir       

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