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My 2 cents on a controversial read: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Genre: General Fiction

Published 2019, 378 pages

I read this book to see what all the hubbub is about, all the controversy. While I understand the issues raised around the controversy, to me, judged just on the writing and storytelling, this is a really good book.


The characters felt real and complete. Lydia owns her own bookshop in Acapulco and lives a comfortable life with her journalist husband and 8 year old son. A customer comes into the store, becomes a regular and they become good friends. But, her husband is a journalist who writes about the cartels - and she learns that her new friend is actually the head of the newest cartel that has taken over Acapulco.

"Lydia had been aware of the migrant caravans coming from Guatemala and Honduras in the way comfortable people living stable lives are peripherally aware of destitution. She heard their stories on the news radio while she cooked dinner in her kitchen. ... Lydia chopped onions and cilantro in her kitchen while she listened to their histories. They fled violence and poverty, gangs more powerful than their governments. ... On the radio, Lydia heard those walking mothers singing to their children, and she felt a pang of emotion for them. That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness."

When the cartel strikes her family, she suddenly finds herself one of those migrants as she and her son end up on the run - to the US. The majority of the story is about this journey, this impossible, terrifying, incomprehensible journey. Readers learn a few stories of some of the other migrants they meet along the way, but the focus stays on Lydia and her son, Luca, as they battle their fear of being caught by the cartel, their lack of funds and knowledge about how to get north, their distrust of everyone they meet. I can't imagine.

Soledad and Rebeca are the two main auxiliary characters and they are added to illustrate the extreme danger young girls/women face when traveling alone. Brave or foolhardy? It's hard to know which is worse - the fear of what you left behind or the fear of what is ahead!

"As Rebeca reveals what scraps of story she does have to Luca, he starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well educated, some illiterate, Salvadorna, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond."

I found the writing so strong, so evocative, and the situations as presented are compelling - terrifying even, and I was made to feel that. I appreciate that kind of good writing!

A Controversy Arises

As to the controversy: much of the controversy (and it became quite nasty) seemed to center around the fact that this is a Mexican story, a story of immigration, written by a white woman who has no experience either as an immigrant or Mexican. It's not an "own voices" book. As I read through article after article about how Cummins couldn't possibly relate to or accurately portray the immigrant experience and the fact that she "took the space from an own-voices author", I realized I had to read this for myself.

My thoughts are that authors write about situations they haven't personally experienced ALL THE TIME! It's called doing the research, then using your imagination. The fact that she didn't actually experience any of the hardships portrayed is irrelevant. It's a novel and never claimed to be anything but a work of fiction. I find that criticism hurtful and actually untrue, since it's a well-written, well researched, good read of a book.

The other part of the criticism perhaps has a little more validity. The fact that she was able to find a publisher and get the book written and published instead of one written by a Mexican or LatinX, is more a reflection on the publishing industry than on her. I agree that publishers should make more of an effort to locate good authors in a variety of ethnicities to tell their own stories. Just like the movie industry making a more concerted effort to be inclusive of other races, publishing needs to do the same. But just quietly publishing a book without putting the power of the publishers media machine behind it isn't enough. There's room for more authors and more good books!

In the final analysis, this is a book worth reading. When we so cavalierly say/think something like "I can't imagine living through that", this is the kind of book that CAN make you imagine it.....and maybe work to change it! An excellent choice for a book club read, or if you're interested in getting a different perspective on the Mexican migrant experience, I highly recommend the book.

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