I’ll just say it straight up: I liked “American Dirt” very much. Jeanine Cummins is a helluva writer.
“American Dirt” is a harrowing fictional story of a mother and her young son fleeing for their lives from a drug lord in Mexico. It’s a grim topic. I didn’t expect to have such a strong reaction to it. Not liking the book, or finding it mediocre, would have been easier.
That’s because in January, soon after the novel was published, controversy erupted over the fact that Cummins is more-or-less white and therefore had appropriated a story that wasn’t hers to tell. If the book were bad, it would be easy to criticize the whole package: unappealing writing, wrong writer. Anyway, the controversy made me curious. To make up my own mind, I needed to read the book. I did not want to support literary colonialism, so buying it was out. My solution was the library.
The waiting list was 10 miles long. Then along came the pandemic, which froze all activity at the library and everywhere else, so the wait was that much longer. When my turn finally came in late August, I picked up the book but did not open it right away because I was feeling stressed for a variety of reasons, and reading a story centered around violence and fear would not help my mood. Once I dared to start reading, I was drawn in immediately.
One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.
You’ve got a little boy taking a pee during a party at his grandmother’s house when men with guns kill 16 family members, his father included. The book starts off at a run and rarely rests, moving at the same urgent pace as Luca and his mother, Lydia, frantically try to escape the reach of the cartel leader behind the murders — safety that they believe is possible only in the United States.
Here’s where the book did disappoint. Given its title, I expected Luca and Lydia to make it to America only to be treated like dirt: detained at the border, regarded as criminals rather than victims, doubted and dehumanized. But — spoiler alert! — that’s not how it ends. All of the scary things that happen to them happen only in Mexico.
The creepiest part is how deeply the cartel infiltrates and controls the community, a message deftly dropped into the description of the police response to the crime scene.
[O]f the more than two dozen law enforcement and medical personnel moving around Abuela’s home and patio this very moment, marking the locations of shell casings, examining footprints, analyzing blood splatter, taking pictures, checking for pulses, making the sign of the cross over the corpses of Lydia’s family, seven receive regular money from the local cartel. The illicit payment is three times more than what they earn from the government. In fact, one has already texted el jefe to report Lydia’s and Luca’s survival.
Lydia’s family is targeted because her husband, a journalist, has published a profile on the cartel’s jefe. There’s a wrinkle in that Lydia, who owns a bookstore, had become friends with this poetry-loving gangster before she knew his identity. It makes the story more emotionally complicated and interesting but also Hollywood-esque (word is that a movie is already in the works), and that is one of the criticisms of the book.
Another criticism is that Lydia is not a credible character because, despite her husband covering the narco beat, she is cocooned in a middle-class lifestyle, too easily shocked by realities of life in her own country. I can’t judge the story’s authenticity. I am not from Mexico nor have I any expertise about the country.
I am a daughter of immigrants, though. My parents fled China after Japan invaded during World War II. They took refuge in Hong Kong, then a British colony, where they met as young adults. In the mid-1950s, following the Chinese Communist Revolution, they came to the United States.
My parents spoke very little about their lives during the war. My siblings and I obeyed an unspoken directive not to probe. When, as an adult, one of my sisters tried to ask an uncle about his experience, he brusquely shut her down. It was a bad time and there was no benefit to reliving it, was his message.
My family has a story, but I don’t know it to tell. I wouldn’t mind if someone else told it. It would be nice if the storyteller were Chinese, but they wouldn’t have to be. I’m a journalist; you’d think I could research and write this story myself, but I can’t. The trauma is too close.
I don’t believe that stories must be told only by their own cultures. I do appreciate that our society is less willing nowadays to let white people dominate everything, including everyone’s stories. I’m sure that the publishing world is not nearly as diverse as it needs to be. But I hope that appreciating a book written by a mostly white author (one with a Puerto Rican grandmother) doesn’t mean there’s no room for writers from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America to tell stories, too, and receive handsome advances and acclaim. If nothing else, “American Dirt” has stimulated an important conversation and raised awareness.
For what it’s worth, I found the book compelling and well-written. But decide for yourself.
Read more in the Sept. 30 - Oct. 6, 2020 issue.