Book Review: American Dirt

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

American Dirt

By: Jeanine Cummins

One word for this book is: Intense.  There were many cringle-worthy moments followed by heartfelt empathy and sympathy.  This book has grabbed the attention of many readers country-wide.  From it being on top of Oprah’s Book Club suggestions to being sold in corporate book stores many have seen the barbed wired cover and heard a plethora of mixed reviews.  As always, you’ve heard people on both side of the spectrum: avid supports and avid non-supporters of what was written within the novel’s pages.

About the Book:

In a nutshell, the novel is a story of how a Mexican mother and her son are forced to flee their home in Acupolco, Mexico due to gang violence.  In fleeing they begin the quest to seek a better life.  For them, they believe their better life awaits for them in El Norte; in the United States.  The novel is about their journey, how they got to where they found themselves and the many intense (see, there’s that word again) struggles they faced during their journey to the US/Mexico border.

Throughout the pages we meet many people, both good and bad and the third-person narrative allows the reader to see the story from the perspective of many characters.  During the mother and son’s journey, Cummins explores the very real and difficult hardships many migrants face during their journey to the North.  From hunger, to poverty, to dangers of La Besita to rape, robbery, abuse, gang violence and murder, the pages leave no details aside of what a migrant may face during his or her journey.  This is not a novel for someone who is sensitive to graphic description and raw material.  There is intricate detail and descriptive language used throughout the 387 pages so immense that the reader is able to hear the cries described, smell the foods of the different cities along the journey and feel the heartache many characters we meet feel.

Cummins immense research and interviews on the topic result in a fictional story, but a story that many migrants to some degree have lived through.

My Opinion:

I am here strictly to discuss the novel itself and the story it withholds.  I sincerely enjoyed the story and the novel as a whole.  It was a work of fiction and I believe that is an important point to draw down on.  For me, someone who had very little knowledge of the hardships migrants face, it was a very enlightening story.  Of course I always had a sense of what migrants may go through in the back of my mind, but to read the words and capture the scenes in my mind’s eye, brought a new level of empathy and interest for me.

The quality of Cummins writing was not what I would call for a Pulitzer Prize.  There were a few points that I found hard to follow (due to the third-person narrative) and her transitions were a bit wonky here and there.  So the argument that there are better authors out there, is a valid one.  Do these authors have personal accounts and stories to tell of Latinx Migrants? 

Sure.  Did they receive as much publicity (and with that money)?  The answer is more times than not: no.  This is the problem many Latinx people are honing in on.  It all boils down to the publicist and editors and who with influence (*cough*Oprah*cough*) may pick up the book.

I have heard the argument time and time again that “it is not her story to tell”.  Her—meaning Cummins.  It is important to note that Cummins is not of Latinx descent and nor has she lived a migratory life—she doesn’t even take ownership to that claim, either. However, if we stood on that argument, then no stories could ever be told.  If personal experience is the only justification to ownership of a work of fiction, then 1) it would no longer be a work of fiction and 2) there would no longer be imaginative pieces produced.  Perhaps this is a point to bring up during a Book Club discussion.

For me, prior to reading this book I did not understand the level of hardships migrants are up against.  I was a lucky girl who was born into a white, middle-class working family and was not exposed to the difficult life of being a first generation US Citizen, Dreamer or migrant.  This book drew a very real picture for me—a picture which has now sparked an immense interest for myself.  And if I’m continuing to be honest, I probably would not have picked up the book if it wasn’t one of the five novel choices for my February 2020 Book of the Month Club subscription.  Had a different title’s synopsis sounded better, I may not have went with this one either.  So I guess what I am trying to say is before we criticize a novel for being inauthentic or because we disagree with a platform the author may have stood on, lets analyze what the readers are meant to get out of the novel and the entire reading experience as a whole.

For me, I’ve decided to continue to educate myself on the difficulties and violence going on in many Latin American countries.  I have furthered my education and started watching documentaries such as The Trade.  I have also purchased books written by migrants who had first account stories similar to the one fictionally written in American Dirt.

Overall, the book served its purpose of me and I highly suggest it to all readers:  to those who are like me and may have had zero exposure and minimal education on the migratory hardships as well as those who have either personal accounts or can speak from a first person narrative.  Altogether the intent of Cummins was there and for me, her message got across.

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