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       


Melisande: May 2020 Artist of the Month

électrotrad Les Myriades
Borealis Records

Quebec was once dubbed La Belle Province. I reckon that’s for its geographical splendor but if, like me, you find yourself swept up in the raucous joy of Quebeçois music, you have experienced a different kind of beauty. It’s the sort that cracks the bones of the human experience to extract the sweetness from its marrow. Quebeçois music is seldom quiet or constrained; it compels you to move to keep time with clogging feet.

Even the greatest traditional music needs a little jolt now and then to prevent it from becoming stale. The band Mélisande derives its name from lead singer, Mélisande de Grosbois-Garand, but her name translates as honey bee and denotes strength. She and her husband Alexandre (flute, programming), plus band mates Gabriel Ethier (programming), David Boulanger (fiddle, banjo, vocals), and Félix-Antoine Beaudoin (drums) put a muscular electric sting into old songs. In doing so, take traditional music into the 21st century, partly by removing some of its patriarchal elements, but mostly by tossing it into a blender with whatever suits them at the time: heavy bass, electronic looping, break dancing, glam rock voguing, rave-like energy…. Plus, Boulanger’s feet are always in motion and Quebeçois fiddling has so many Scottish and Irish echoes that French-Canadian music is often viewed as Celtic. Mélisande call their approach électrotrad, and it’s an apt handle.

The band’s latest record, Les Myriades is both plugged in and electrifying. “Demain je m’en vas” (“Tomorrow I’m Leaving”) would certainly be at home in a club with soap suds pouring from the balcony and dancers swaying to programmed pulses and beats. They get funky with “Ti-Pétard Allard,” and they use echo effects to update “Le cou de ma bouteille” (“The Neck of My Bottle”) a call-and-response song that has musical segues highly reminiscent of the Scottish band Capercaillie. (Mélisande de Grosbois-Garand often reminds me of Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson in her vocal inflections.)

I loved every track from Les Myriades, but several really grabbed me. One was “Tapetipetep,” which is just fun: drums, feet, jaw harp, wild fiddling, energized programing, and lyrics that would be tongue-twisting in any language. The robotic opening of “Trois beaux canards” (“Three Lovely Ducks”) soaks of the most-performed songs in all of Quebeçois music in electronica that breathes new life into it. They do the same with another old canard (if you will), “Amusons-nous jeunesse.” It’s perfect for a club treatment, as it’s a call to have fun when you’re young because the bloom of youth will not last forever. My youthful ship has sailed, but I like it when artists find new ways to present songs I first heard decades ago.  

As of this writing, it’s hard to find videos for all of the material on Les Myriades, so I have attached the promo, which has snippets of how Mélisande rolls. Also,here’s a small bonus because who can resist a song titled “Le vin est bon?”And here they are rocking Australia.

If you want to see what I mean about the Capercaillie comparison, sample this. (It might be a tad unfair on my part. Capercaillie are Scottish superstars who have been at it for far longer. One of my favorite bands ever!)

Rob Weir


Road Trips to Avoid

A few days ago, I commented on a few Internet sites that declared a bunch of famed tourist sites not worth the bother. I agreed with a few, but not others. Here is my list of overrated places for future travel.

The Tidal Bore in Moncton, New Brunswick is aptly named. All of the Bay of Fundy is overrated. Its massive tide shifts don’t come in or go out in massive sheets of water. Like all tides, the highs and lows are 12 or so hours apart. Moncton takes the trophy for dullness. You stand in a pavilion rain or shine and watch a tidal river slowly turn itself into either a stream or a mudflat. It’s like filling a bathtub with an eye dropper. Plus, New Brunswick is easily Canada’s most boring province.

Verona, Italy is a handsome town if you like architecture, but don’t be suckered into going to see Juliet’s balcony. It’s just a second story stone porch jutting out from a once-grand home. NOTHING happened there. Romeo and Juliet was a play, folks; Shakespeare made it up and set it in Verona. Although the Capulets (Cappelleti actually) and the Montagues were once two powerful families, there is no evidence that Romeo and Juliet were more than figments of the Bard’s imagination.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is among my favorite films, which is why I found myself in Lyme Regis (West Dorset, England) to see where much of the film was made. Dorset is wonderful, but Lyme Regis is the among the most oxy of all oxymorons: an English beach town. The pier (aka/The Cobb) where so many moody film shots were filmed is just a hunk of concrete poking into the ocean for a hundred yards or so. The surrounding coast somehow became a World Heritage area. It’s on the English Channel. No one in their right mind associates anything on the English Channel with going to the beach.

So many people told me that going to Epcot Center was “just like” being in Venice, Paris, Morocco, etc. that I went there. How many ways can I say, “No, it is not?” Epcot is a shopping mall with a faux world’s fair vibe. It also tries to represent the future—and has exhibits from past world’s fairs. Note the the word “past.” It is the future that never was, and recent upgrades are the future that never will be. Epcot costs a whopping $125 to enter. Like all of Orlando, the smartest option is to stay away.

In 1917, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to three shepherd girls in Fatima, Portugal, and delivered a series of prophecies. It has since become a major pilgrimage site for Catholics. Or maybe I should have said “tourist trap.” Fatima holds the distinction of being the only town in all or Portugal I absolutely hated. Think of the tackiest tourist shop you’ve ever entered. Add plaster statuary and the entire commercial center of Fatima is like that. Mix with churches and cathedrals that cater to the faithful cafeteria-style. Fatima should have a sign that says, “Abandon hope, all ye who get fleeced here.”

Once upon a time Harvard Square and environs were filled with unique shops, bookstores, art cinemas, funky cafes, and ethnic restaurants and food stores. That was then; this is now. Nearly everything that was special has been replaced by chain stores, fast food, and the kind of student hangouts you’d find in any university town. Visit the Harvard museums and then hop on the Red Line to flee Generica.

If there is a more boring city in the USA than Atlanta, please tell me so I can avoid it. The Sweet Auburn section where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised is the sole reason to do more than change planes in Atlanta. Even Sweet Auburn is a place where white Atlanta suburbanites can pretend they care about civil rights while quietly segregating the rest of the city. One of the city’s top tourist attractions is Coca-Cola World, which ought to tell you all you need to know. 

Effigy Mounds National Park near the town of Harpers Ferry, Iowa is a nice place to stroll and gaze upon the broad Mississippi River, but you won’t learn much about the Native Americans who built the mounds some 5,000 years ago. There are about 200 mounds here, some with figures carved into the knolls. Alas, mound remains are little more than green bumps on the landscape and you’d have to be an eagle to see the figures. 

On a tour I got trapped for several days in the Malaga region of Spain’s Costa del Sol. It is a charmless area whose beaches are not particularly clean. I don’t understand why people fly across the Atlantic to have a beach experience they could have anywhere else that has salt water. Apparently others agree, as there are lots of bankrupt condo projects all along the Costa del Sol.

Speaking of interchangeable experiences, many visitors to Scotland head to St. Andrews in the mistaken impression they can play golf in its alleged birthplace. Unless you have a lot of money and reserve a tee time years in advance, you can’t. So you’ll spend your time trying to find something interesting to do. It’s a university town and you can probably wile away a few hours, but catch the next bus to Edinburgh as soon as possible.   

It’s picturesque, but the Washington Monument is really just a giant marble middle finger thrust into the District of Columbia sky. I’ve been to its 555-foot summit several times. The view is okay, but if lines are long—and they usually are--there are much better ways to spend your time in the Capitol City.

Tijuana, Mexico has a reputation for being unsafe. It’s no worse than a lot of American cities and is pretty safe unless you venture off looking for trouble. Really, though, there’s little reason to go there. There are bars where you can observe brainless Americans downing Jell-O shots and slugs of tequila, and places where you can put on a sombrero and pay to have your picture taken with a burro. Aside from some colorful buildings, Tijuana is a city of tacky tourist crap and scads of pharmacies where you can buy cheap medications. Each has a young woman (girl?) in a white lab coat, so you know she’s qualified, yeah? Need I say that you should be leery of the quality of their wares, even if you can buy 10 Viagra pills for $7?

I usually think that most crowded places are thronged for a reason. I might make an exception for Versailles. Louis XIV was a flamboyant king, but unless you like baroque—and I mean really like baroque­—you can give Versailles a miss. I hate the gilded angels, garish wall hangings, coffered ceilings, and decorated everything that characterize the baroque style. It is terribly mobbed, so even if you do like this stuff, you’ll be ushered through pretty fast and in many places you can’t take photos.  

Oakley, KN
Lots of people dream of driving across the United States. The problem is that most routes, especially I-70 or Route 66, take you through places like Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and northern Texas, where even the tumbleweed wants to be somewhere else. I-70 is one of those roads with signs that tell you it’s just 150 miles to the world’s largest prairie dog and by the time you arrive at a crumbling concrete rodent you’re so bored you think it’s kind of cool. Route 66 at least has some historical cachet, though its allure has faded like the TV series that made it famous. Mostly it’s either dull, empty, strip-mall congested, or slow—especially slow. My best advice is to fly over the middle of the country.

Rob Weir