‘American Dirt’: Beyond the controversy, a flawed but relevant novel

Jeanine Cummins’ book may encourage readers to see commonalities such as the universal desire to find safety and home. 

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, Flatiron Books, 400 pp.

“American Dirt” will likely be challenging to read, both for the tale it tells as well as for the controversy it has generated. (Read our story here.) Jeanine Cummins’ best-selling novel was first received with enormous praise, but then discussions surrounding it quickly devolved into fierce debates about appropriation and the marginalization of Latino writers. These debates are vital and overdue. Publishers have long overlooked Mexican women writers, especially, and the current discussion draws needed attention to that fact. 

In the days since its release, though, the headlines have threatened to overshadow the work as a piece of literature and what it does provide. With the topic of immigration dominating the news, we are bombarded with statistics but have little sense of the human beings involved. In situations like this, the arts can bring compassion and empathy that allows us to see our commonalities. Though flawed, this book adds to that discussion.

The novel opens dramatically with a large, joyful family celebration of a quinceanera, a 15th birthday party, which is extinguished by a hail of bullets. Lydia and her young son, Luca, are the lone survivors. Lydia, a local bookseller, knows the devastation to be retribution for her journalist husband’s expose of a local drug cartel. She also knows that she and her son are not safe as long as they remain in Mexico. Their only hope of survival is escaping north to the border.

What follows is a suspense tale, a life-and-death adventure story in which Lydia must discern which path to take and whom to trust. She does not have time to grieve the loss of her family, especially her husband. Every thought must remain focused on getting herself and her son safely through each day.

Theirs is not a solo journey. Others facing similar desperate circumstances share resources and provide cover – even a measure of anonymity – as Lydia tries to outwit the cartel. She begins to realize that the usual labels designating who is “other” shift and sometimes disappear entirely. While she has always seen herself as educated and not one of “them,” such distinctions no longer apply. Each in his or her own way is trying to achieve a common goal – to escape the current precarious circumstances and hopefully find something better.

Whether or not readers personally identify with the storyline about a frantic escape to another country, almost everyone will find glimpses of shared experiences, of the times when everyday life changed in a flash as the result of events beyond one’s control. Many people know the times of having to stay totally focused on a single goal, an effort that does not allow time to grieve, because emotions seem like a luxury in extreme situations. Recognizing this commonality might help to build bridges in a political debate that could desperately use civil conversations around immigration.

Does the plot over-simplify some of the people and many of the situations, as critics argue? Yes. The Mexican writers and readers who have weighed in on the issue have said so and their voices offer valuable insights. 

But those arguments do not negate the merits of this book. Rather, they highlight the need for more books on the issue, ones written by Mexican and Central American writers. They are out there but they do require some conscientious digging to find. The North Star to help identify them is to search out the hashtag #OwnVoice.

Here are a few suggestions:

“Everyone Knows You Go Home” by Natalia Sylvester

“The Devil’s Highway” by Luís Alberto Urrea

“Crux” by Jean Guerrero

“Children of the Land” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

“Make Your Home Among Strangers” by Jennine Capó Crucet 

For readers to simply bypass “American Dirt” because of the controversy would be a missed opportunity. 

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