The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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American Dirt
American Dirt
A Novel
by Jeanine Cummins

Hardcover (21 Jan 2020), 400 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN-13: 9781250209764

Hailed as "a Grapes of Wrath for our times" and "a new American classic", American Dirt is a rare exploration into the inner hearts of people willing to sacrifice everything for a glimmer of hope.

American Dirt is the first book to ever score a perfect 5-stars in BookBrowse's early reader program, First Impressions--and we've reviewed more than 600 books to date!

También de este lado hay sueños.

On this side too, there are dreams.

If it's only a better life you seek, seek it elsewhere...This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you. And your journey will grow even more treacherous from here. Everything is working against you. ―American Dirt

Lydia Quixano Perez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

Even though she knows they'll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with four books he would like to buy―two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia's husband's tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.

Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia―trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier's reach doesn't extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed. It is a literary achievement filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books for our times.


One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn't immediately understand that it's a bullet at all, and it's only luck that it doesn't strike him between the eyes. Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed. There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire. Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.

"Mijo, ven," she says, so quietly that Luca doesn't hear her.

Her hands are not gentle; she propels him toward the shower. He trips on the raised tile step and falls forward onto his hands. Mami lands on top of him and his teeth pierce his lip in the tumble. He tastes blood. One dark droplet makes a tiny circle of red against the bright green shower tile. Mami shoves Luca into the corner. There's no door on this shower, no curtain. It's only a corner of his abuela's bathroom, with a third tiled wall built to suggest a stall. This wall is around five and a half feet high and three feet long—just large enough, with some luck, to shield Luca and his mother from sight. Luca's back is wedged, his small shoulders touching both walls. His knees are drawn up to his chin, and Mami is clinched around him like a tortoise's shell. The door of the bathroom remains open, which worries Luca, though he can't see it beyond the shield of his mother's body, behind the half barricade of his abuela's shower wall. He'd like to wriggle out and tip that door lightly with his finger. He'd like to swing it shut. He doesn't know that his mother left it open on purpose. That a closed door only invites closer scrutiny.

The clatter of gunfire outside continues, joined by an odor of charcoal and burning meat. Papi is grilling carne asada out there and Luca's favorite chicken drumsticks. He likes them only a tiny bit blackened, the crispy tang of the skins. His mother pulls her head up long enough to look him in the eye. She puts her hands on both sides of his face and tries to cover his ears. Outside, the gunfire slows. It ceases and then returns in short bursts, mirroring, Luca thinks, the sporadic and wild rhythm of his heart. In between the racket, Luca can still hear the radio, a woman's voice announcing ¡La Mejor 100.1 FM Acapulco! followed by Banda MS singing about how happy they are to be in love. Someone shoots the radio, and then there's laughter. Men's voices. Two or three, Luca can't tell. Hard bootsteps on Abuela's patio.

"Is he here?" One of the voices is just outside the window.


"What about the kid?"

"Mira, there's a boy here. This him?"

Luca's cousin Adrián. He's wearing cleats and his Hernández jersey. Adrián can juggle a balón de fútbol on his knees forty-seven times without dropping it.

"I don't know. Looks the right age. Take a picture."

"Hey, chicken!" another voice says. "Man, this looks good. You want some chicken?"

Luca's head is beneath his mami's chin, her body knotted tightly around him.

"Forget the chicken, pendejo. Check the house."

Luca's mami rocks in her squatting position, pushing Luca even harder into the tiled wall. She squeezes against him, and together they hear the squeak and bang of the back door. Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca's blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Copyright © 2020 by Jeanine Cummins. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Throughout the novel, Lydia thinks back on how, when she was living a middle-class existence, she viewed migrants with pity: "All her life she's pitied those poor people. She's donated money. She's wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn't even want them" (chapter 10, page 94). Do you think the author chose to make Lydia a middle-class woman as her protagonist for a reason? Do you think the reader would have had a different entry point to the novel if Lydia started out as a poor migrant? Would you have viewed Lydia differently if she had come from poor origins? How much do you identify with Lydia?
  2. Sebastián persists in running his story on Javier even though he knows it will put him and his family in grave danger. Do you admire what he did? Was he a good journalist or a bad husband and father? Is it possible he was both? What would you have done if you were him?
  3. Lydia looks at Luca and thinks to herself: "Migrante. She can't make the word fit him. But that's what they are now. This is how it happens" (chapter 10, page 94). Lydia refers to her and Luca becoming migrants as something that happened to them rather than something they did. Do you think the author intentionally made this sentence passive? Do you think language allows us to label things as "other" that is, in a way, tantamount to self-preservation? Does it allow us to compartmentalize things that are too difficult to comprehend?
  4. When Lydia is at the Casa del Migrante, she learns the term cuerpomático—"human ATM machine"—and what it means. Were you surprised to learn how dangerous the passage is, and for female migrants in particular?
  5. When Lydia, Luca, Soledad, and Rebeca are at the Casa del Migrante, the priest warns them to turn back: "If it's only a better life you seek, seek it elsewhere…. This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you" (chapter 17, page 168). Were you surprised that he would be issuing such a dire warning when he must know how desperate they are to be there in the first place? Under what conditions might you decide to leave your homeland?
  6. When they get to the US–Mexican border, Beto says, "This is the whole problem, right? Look at that American flag over there—you see it? All bright and shiny; it looks brand-new. And then look at ours. It's all busted up and raggedy" (chapter 26, page 273). Later he says, "I mean, those estadounidenses are obsessed with their flag" (chapter 26, page 274). Do you agree with Beto? Do the flags symbolize something more than just the countries they represent?
  7. The term "American" only appears once in the novel. Did you notice? Why do you think the author made this choice?
  8. When Luca finally crosses over to the United States, he's disappointed: "The road below is nothing like the roads Luca imagined he'd encounter in the USA. He thought every road here would be broad as a boulevard, paved to perfection, and lined with fluorescent shopfronts. This road is like the crappiest Mexican road he's ever seen. Dirt, dirt, and more dirt" (chapter 31, page 329). Discuss the significance of the title, American Dirt. What do you think the author means by it?
  9. "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. Mothers pushing strollers thousands of miles, small children walking holes into the bottoms of their pink Crocs, hundreds of families banding together for safety, gathering numbers as they walked north for weeks, hitching rides in the backs of trucks whenever they could, riding La Bestia whenever they could, sleeping in fútbol stadiums and churches, coming all that way to el norte to plead for asylum. 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. She listened to their fear and determination, how resolved they were to reach Estados Unidos or die on the road in that effort, because staying at home meant their odds of survival were even worse. On the radio, Lydia heard those walking mothers singing to their children, and she felt a pang of emotion for them. She tossed chopped vegetables into hot oil, and the pan sizzled in response. That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Dinner would be bland" (chapter 26, pages 276–77). Do you think the narrator intends for the reader to wholeheartedly censure Lydia in this scene? Do you think Lydia is a stand-in for the reader and that the author is sending a broader message? After reading the author's note, do you think the author includes herself in this group?
  10. "I heard if your life is in danger wherever you come from, they're not allowed to send you back there."
    To Lydia it sounds like mythology, but she can't help asking anyway, "You have to be Central American? To apply for asylum?"
    Beto shrugs. "Why? Your life in danger?"
    Lydia sighs. "Isn't everyone's?"
    (chapter 26, page 277)
    If you were writing the rules for asylum eligibility, what would they be?
  11. Toward the end of the novel, Soledad "sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side. Her fingers are in el norte. She spits through the fence. Only to leave a piece of herself there on American dirt" (chapter 28, page 301). Why do you think Soledad spits over the border? Is doing so a victory for her?
  12. "Luca wonders if they're moving perpendicular to that boundary now, that place where the fence disappears and the only thing to delineate one country from the next is a line that some random guy drew on a map years and years ago" (chapter 30, page 317). In his 1971 book Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls came up with what he called the "veil of ignorance." Rawls asked readers to think about how they would design an ideal society if they knew nothing of their own sex, gender, race, nationality, individual tastes, or personal identity.

    Do you think the decision-makers of the borders might've made a different decision if they'd donned the veil of ignorance? Do you think borders are a necessary evil or might their delineation serve a societal good? Do you think that the world would be a better place if we all brought Rawls's thought experiment to bear in our everyday individual and collective decisionmaking?
  13. Why do you think there are birds on the cover of the novel?
  14. "But the moment of the crossing has already passed, and she didn't even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante" (chapter 30, page 323). Do you think Lydia is better or worse off for not having known about the moment of her boundary crossing? What importance do rituals have in marking milestones in our lives? Can the done be undone, the past rewinded?
  15. Was Javier's reaction to Marta's death at all understandable? Humanizing? Do you believe that he didn't want Lydia dead? Is what he did, in the name of his daughter, any less paternal than what Lydia does for Luca is maternal?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Flatiron Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

The tense and engrossing story of a mother-and-son migrant journey, American Dirt is a truly groundbreaking work of fiction.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt hasn't just been positively reviewed by BookBrowse First Impressions readers—it's become our highest-rated book of all time! 33 out of 33 reviewers rated it five out of five stars, scoring it a perfect 5.0 average—the first book out of more than 600 titles to achieve this.

What American Dirt is about:

It tells the story of a mother and son as they flee drug cartel violence in their hometown of Acapulco. They head north, facing many dangers, and have to draw upon reserves of inner strength they did not know they had (Randi H). Imagine yourself at a family party in Acapulco. The festivities are underway, and everyone is having a wonderful time. In a split second, gunfire breaks out, leaving 16 members of your family dead. You and your son are alive only because he had gone inside and you went in to check on him. You hear the gunmen—cartel members you assume—looking around for survivors. By pure luck and instinct, the two of you survive. But this is only the beginning of the story (Nanette C).

Reviewers were immediately drawn in by Cummins' lifelike characters and captivating plot.

From the very first page to the last, I was hooked. The story of Lydia and Luca is so beautifully written. I felt I was actually with them on every step of their journey (Amber H). American Dirt captivated me from the moment I read the first page. There were so many twists and turns that were totally unpredictable (Antoinette B). This book has the key elements of what makes a great book—a plot-driven story with characters you care about (Michele H). American Dirt grabbed me from the very first sentence. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to rush through the book or savor every word (Marianne D).

While the book recounts traumatic events, readers found joy and beauty in it.

There are moments of abject terror, but there are also moments of joy. The way Lydia holds it together for her son reminded me a bit of the father in the movie Life is Beautiful. American Dirt is a novel you will never forget (Nanette C). This book is compelling, frightening, heartwarming and unforgettable. The migrants can trust no one and yet they find hope, and the courage to keep living, and to love. Lydia and Luca are beautiful characters (Lynn D).

Some praise its potential for education and discussion...

This is that book. The one you will read and instantly want to share. The one that will spark the discussions we so need to have. I would so love to see this read in high schools across the country. This IS that book (Deborah H). If anything could have the power to change the debate about immigration in this country, it would be this book. It should be required reading for every U.S. citizen (Susan S). There will be some who will say it's too political but how can it not be? The migrant tragedy is real, political and complex and needs to be evaluated with compassion and realism (Margot P).

Many readers take pains to express just how highly they think of American Dirt and how deeply it has affected them.

There are a few times in your life when you read a book that transforms you. For me, this is one of those books. I found this book riveting from the very first sentence. I might add that I am a very critical reader but there is nothing I can say except to praise American Dirt (Dorothy L). This book actually gave me a book hangover that is making it difficult for me to move on to another story. I can't recommend it enough (Ilyse B). Blurbs have covered the stratosphere heralding the publication of this novel. I am here to tell you that these comments are not hyperbole; all of them are well deserved (Lani S). This will be without a doubt the best book I've read all year, and it has been a year of excellent novels for me. I could not stop reading, I felt so emotionally involved with the characters. My heart ached for them, I felt their terror and unbearable grief. I urge everyone to read this stunning and realistic book (Cheryl S).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

New York Times
The book’s simple language immerses the reader immediately and breathlessly in the terror and difficulty of Lydia and Luca’s flight. The uncomplicated moral universe allows us to read it as a thriller with real-life stakes. The novel’s polemical architecture gives a single very forceful and efficient drive to the narrative. And the greatest animating spirit of the novel is the love between Lydia and Luca: It shines its blazing light on all the desperate migrants and feels true and lived.

Washington Post
American Dirt offers both a vital chronicle of contemporary Latin American migrant experience and a profoundly moving reading experience. If only we could press it into the hands of people in power. If only a story this generously told would inspire them to expand the borders of their vision of America.

The Observer (Sunday edition of The Guardian)
What Cummins does so skilfully in the novel is to subvert popular preconceptions about migrants. Lydia is educated, middle-class, escaping to America not in search of better economic opportunities but simply to survive. “She and Luca are actual migrants… All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite, how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they came from, that this is the better option.”

Cummins answers this question so compellingly that it is hard to imagine there will be a more urgent or politically relevant novel this year.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Intensely suspenseful and deeply humane, this novel makes migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border indelibly individual.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This extraordinary novel about unbreakable determination will move the reader to the core.

Author Blurb John Grisham
I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it's been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt. Its plot is tight, smart, and unpredictable. Its message is important and timely, but not political. Its characters are violent, compassionate, sadistic, fragile, and heroic. It is rich in authenticity. Its journey is a testament to the power of fear and hope and belief that there are more good people than bad.

Author Blurb Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone
Relevant, powerful, extraordinary. It is a remarkable combination of joy and terror, infused always with the restorative power of a mother's love and the endless human capacity for hope. I hope everyone reads it and is as moved by it as I was.

Author Blurb Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies
Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment. Jeanine Cummins makes us all LIVE and BREATHE the refugee story. If a book can change hearts and transform policies, this is the one!

Author Blurb Don Winslow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Border
From its heart-stopping first sentence to its heart-shattering last, Cummins's story of immigrants is just what we need now. Gritty yet sensitive, realistic yet hopeful, grand and granular, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a Grapes of Wrath for our times.

Author Blurb Tara Conklin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Last Romantics
American Dirt is an urgent, blistering, unforgettable book. In her portrayal of Lydia and Luca, a mother and son forced to leave their Mexican home, Jeanine Cummins has given face to migrants everywhere who flee violence and near-certain death in search of only one thing: a chance at life. Beautifully written, thrilling in its propulsive force, American Dirt is a new American classic.

Author Blurb Rumaan Alam, author of That Kind of Mother and Rich and Pretty
The story of the migrant is the story of our times, and Jeanine Cummins is a worthy chronicler. At once intimate and epic, American Dirt is an exhilarating and beautiful book about parental love and human hope.

Author Blurb Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring
This tough, powerful novel is an eye opener. It made me understand better why someone would give up the home they know and love to survive, and the grit required to cross that border. It is essential reading for our time.

Author Blurb Sarah Blake, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Postmistress and The Guest Book
Urgent and unforgettable, American Dirt leaps the borders of the page and demands attention, especially now.

Author Blurb Stephen King
American Dirt is an extraordinary piece of work, a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it. The prose is immaculate, and the story never lets up. This book will be an important voice in the discussion about immigration and los migrantes; it certainly puts the lie to the idea that we are being besieged by 'bad hombres.' On a micro scale--the story scale, where I like to live--it's one hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy. It's marvelous.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Anl
Worth a read
I m not a fan of “message” books. Or books that attempt to form my opinions. From that aspect, I give this book one star. If you delete that aspect, it is an interesting, well written, easy to read book about the journey of those fleeing to the US. My education about their experiences comes mostly from documentaries, and this book accurately reflects those. I agree with the folks that it does not meet the hype, and I feel the title is way off.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marilyn H.
Still Thinking About This Book
Even though I read this book several months ago, I still think about it. I have recommended it to my friends and my book club. Truly, this is an amazing book and unbelievable feat for a first time author.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Susan
American Dirt
Well written and heart stopping. Kept me spellbound.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Veronica Earley
I couldn't put this book down. I just felt awful for all the characters in the story trying to get to the United States. The research to write this story was done with extreme care. The story was very well written. What a horrible ordeal.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lloyd N
You Won't Want to Miss a Word!
American Dirt is a book that embraces you in a tango of drama, love and strong emotions during a time of turbulence and unrest. It's hard to put the book down once you start reading. It is strongly and confidently written and will appeal to many readers, lovers of fiction and history. I would strongly suggest having a Spanish dictionary nearby to translate words that you are unfamiliar with. You won't want to miss a word! I highly recommend this book, and would even consider giving it as a gift.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cynical Xennial
The Truth About Oprah's Controversial Selection
Politics and controversy aside, let me tell you about this amazing book I just read. It is one of those rare gems that you think of all day, looking forward to when you have time to return to its pages.

At the bones of this novel is a universal classic tale that can cross any genre and appeal to any reader: In a world where survival is extremely difficult, you would do anything to save your loved one. Along the treacherous journey, you must take the measure quickly of people you meet to predict if they are friend or foe. Will they survive? You’ll want to read it for yourself to see.

It also explores the ripple effects life choices/karma have on those closest to you. It’s in parts a tragic love story encased within timely talking points that will inspire important conversations, a perfect choice for a book club.

I understand that many people feel the author was out of place in writing about an experience she had not lived herself. She expresses her own doubts in the author’s note at the end, which she ends with the thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?

But if we limit authors to only those experiences they have personally held, while we would theoretically gain authenticity, we would lose entire genres because most authors have never been to space, battled a fantastical creature, or lived during a past historical period. It is not uncommon for skilled authors to effectively write about a time, place or event that they have not personally experienced. It would be a travesty to cage authors into the unimaginative realm of their personal reality.

This novel had me, someone far removed from the character’s situation, not only thinking more deeply about the plight of migrants daily but also considering immigration from a drastically different light than what is presented in the news and general media. This is the magic that powerful books are capable of - they are catalysts for change.

The truth about American Dirt, the controversial recent selection for Oprah’s book club, is that it is a worthwhile, engaging and thought-provoking novel that is easily recommended to other readers. Is diversity important in literary publishing? Of course. Should there specifically be more Latino authors getting published? Yes, please! Is our country in need of immigration reform? Certainly. Does any of this take away from the excellence of this novel? No, it does not. As an esteemed scholar, Norma Prieto, told the author, “We need as many voices as we can get, telling this story.”
Favorite Quote: The worst will either happen or not happen, and there’s no worry that will make a difference in either direction.

First Sentence: One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.

Excerpt:Some share their stories carefully, selectively, finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers. Other migrants are like blown-open grenades, telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet, dispensing their pain like shrapnel so they might one day wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would feel like to blow up like that. But for now, he remains undetonated, his horrors sealed tightly inside, his pin fixed snugly in place.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by shannon leonetti
Compelling Read
Sometimes it is difficult to be late in the review process of a book because so many people have already discussed and/or reviewed the book. The human reaction is to simple say “there is nothing I can add to this discussion.” I had already written a draft of American Dirt when all the discussions turned to a deafening uproar. I wanted to scrap my review and simply say “there was nothing I could add to this discussion.” That said, I have decided to post my review, anyway. Why? Because whether a reader agrees or disagrees on whether or not Jeanine Cummins has written an accurate book or has the right to tell an immigrant story from a hispanic point-of-view doesn't really matter to me. American Dirt is/was a compelling narrative! While I was reading it, the question of credibility never even occurred to me. The well-told tale was gripping! It was a novel that did't matter! So with this belated caveat, I offer my small but well-intended review.

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, is being hailed as the “Grapes of Wrath for our times." I am not sure if this is the appropriate description. What I am sure of is that this story is a powerful exploration into the lives of people who have everything they care about ripped from their lives and, overcoming unimaginable trauma, manage to cling to a thread of hope. They sacrifice whatever is left to save themselves.

Lydia Quixano Perez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She has a young son and a journalist husband. She runs a bookstore. Her life is full of hard work but it is good and the family is very content. One day a man enters her book shop to browse. He is a reader and becomes a regular customer. Javier is charming and they will become friends. Lydia never suspects that from this very first visit her life is changed forever.

The opening paragraphs stun the reader and never let go. Cartel massacres throughout Acapulco have shrouded its citizens in ever-present tension and fear. Lydia and her son, Luca, find themselves fleeing from their home to escape contract killers hired by Jefe, the most dangerous drug-lord in the area. They have seen too much and Lydia knows their lives depend on them getting completely out of Mexico as fast as they can. Their perilous journey begins.

Cummins skillfully tells the story from both Lydia and Luca's points-of-view, enabling her audience to experience the contrast between an adult confronting the horrors of their escape and the naivete of child. The tension can be overwhelming but Cummins brings back that little bit of hope to keep us turning the pages. I was with Lydia in her fight for their lives. I was with both of them as they met other refugees along the way, never knowing who they could trust and who was a spy.

When reviewing a book my first question is always “Do I care about these characters?” The characters of American Dirt get an unequivocal yes! I not only cared about Lydia and Luca but all the nameless people they met along the way. I wanted to see their dream come true, a life free from the dangers they fled. I wanted their their dreams to come true.

American Dirt is not for the faint of heart. It's uncomfortable, full of graphic violence that leaves a trail of bodies in its wake. Hoboing with Lydia and Luca means the reader will travel two thousand miles with a constant chill down his or her back, never knowing what threat lies right in front of them. The trek is physically demanding. There is no way a mother and her son could prepare for this trek. They walk, ride trains like a hobo, and rarely sleeping two nights in the same place. I don't remember the last time I read deep into the night because I couldn't put a book down.

American Dirt is more than just a mother and son's journey. Cummins asks us to think about what we would do to survive what seems to be the unsurvivable? She does a careful job bringing attention to the refugee crisis without making it political. This could not have been a simple task since the author, herself, is married to a formerly undocumented immigrant. She says she started the novel to give a face to the migrants at the Mexican border. It became much more than that.

American Dirt has generated significant criticism. Questions such as whether or not Cummins, who grew up in Maryland in a working-class family and identifies as white, can of should be the person tell this story? She gets criticized for using too many cliches and stereotypes showing Mexico as a lawless, violent country overrun by drug cartels and corruption. And one Mexican-American writer called her novel “appropriating” and “inaccurate.”

Cummins does not disregard these criticisms. She concedes that she is an imperfect messenger for the story about migrants and she was afraid of getting it wrong. I don't know if the criticisms are justified. She researched the novel during trips to Mexico and by conducting interviews on both sides of the border. She spoke with people whose families had been torn apart by deportations, lawyers who work with unaccompanied minors, migrants in shelters in Tijuana and human-rights activists documenting abuses. It appears to be authentic and compelling.

I walked every step with Lydia. The descriptions of her emotions were impressive. Her shock and panic during and after a massacre, her courage and vulnerability on the road, and her strength and intelligence to do what it took to keep her son safe was heroic.  There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the great the books of 2020.

Cummins is the author of three other books: The Outside Boys (2010), and The Crooked Branch (2013) and her best-selling memoir A Rip in Heaven (2004). She lives on New York with her husband and two children. 

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by CarolK
Realistic Portrayal of a Border Crossing
American Dirt will be published January 21, 2020. It has already made my 2020 Best List as I was fortunate to be an early reader thanks to Amy Einhorn, and Flatiron Books.

Have you ever experienced a horrible trip or had a bad experience visiting another country, one that made you promise to kiss American soil and be happy to be on solid American ground if you made it home? We take our freedom and homeland for granted. Imagine living in village in Mexico. You are a bookstore owner, you live your life for this and also for your eight year-old son and your journalist husband. Today you are hosting the Quinceañera of your niece. This celebration of the coming of age, the ritual of the transformation of a 15 year-old girl to woman, is stopped short, never to happen but forever to be imprinted in your mind. Instead this festive, proud day turns into a blood-bath of horror when gunmen come out of nowhere and sixteen of your relatives are killed, including the girl, your mother and husband. Only you and your son remain and you know you must flee before you are found. It takes you time to realize there are few places you can hide as this is more than a cartel lesson; it is revenge and nothing will stop the search until you and your child are dead. You must make it out of the country as the Los Jardineros will hunt you down. Many readers might have visited Acapulco for some rest and relaxation at one of its many resorts but probably none of you have thought what it would be like to walk from this southern Pacific Coastal town over 2500 miles to Mexico's border with the US. You will walk each mile with Lydia, Luca and those they meet on this harrowing journey.

In 2001 I read Highwire Moon by Susan Straight. It has always been a book that haunted me, putting face and story to immigrants and undocumented persons in our country. American Dirt is another eye-opener of a novel with characters you will not soon forget. Haunting. I find myself looking for Lydia and Luca on our streets.

Stephen King “defies anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it”. I was hooked in less than that.

One final note. As a bookstore owner, Lydia mentions many of her favorite books. She refers to Love in the Time of Cholera by the late Gabriel García Márquez. Makes me yearn to read that book once again


Print Article Publisher's View  

A History of Acapulco and Ongoing Cartel Control

Acapulco Bay Acapulco de Juárez, commonly known as Acapulco, is a city located on the coast of Mexico in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The name "Acapulco" is believed to come from a word in the Náhuatl (Aztec) language meaning "place of the reeds." Once considered a desirable vacation spot and bustling resort town, Acapulco has in recent years been overrun by gang violence, becoming a threatening place for locals and losing much of its draw for travelers.

The modern-day Guerrero region was inhabited by the Mezcala people starting in the 7th century, and shows evidence of earlier ties to the ancient Olmec civilization. The Aztecs gained control of the area in the 11th century, but failed to conquer Acapulco, which remained under local rule. Spanish conquistadors took over the city in the 1500s, turning it into a significant port serving international trade routes. During the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s, when the country fought for freedom from Spanish colonial power, the eventually-successful revolutionary army led by José Morelos was formed in Acapulco. Independence ended Spanish trade routes through the city. However, in 1927, the building of a highway between Acapulco and Mexico City opened up new possibilities for tourism and development.

The city began to come into its own as a resort destination starting in the 1930s and '40s, and became a playground for the rich and famous, hosting the likes of Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Acapulco was featured in the 1963 Elvis Presley musical comedy Fun in Acapulco. In the following decades, it continued to enjoy a reputation as a tourist hotspot. It became a popular spring break getaway for American college students in the early 2000s.

While the movement and availability of drugs existed in Acapulco alongside its reputation as a party destination for some time, a shift took place in 2006—according to some residents—when violence broke out between competing cartels involved in trafficking in the area. Later that year, then-president Felipe Calderón began cracking down on drug traffickers throughout the country using military means. Since then, Acapulco has become a place where cartels fight federal forces and one another. One reason for this concentration of violence in Acapulco specifically is cartel competition over the Guerrero opioid trade, which is heavily supported by the U.S. illegal drug market. In recent years, as much as 90 percent or more of heroin that ends up in the U.S. is believed to have come from Mexico, with a large amount of the poppy used to produce it being grown in the Guerrero mountains. This is one reason that has been cited by the Trump administration for increasing U.S. border security to guard against illegal entry, but experts say several factors make it highly unlikely that these increased security measures would stem the flow of opioids into the United States—one of them being that the majority of drugs pass into the country through legal entry points.

Today, Acapulco is controlled by drug cartels and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Residents are caught in an uneasy relationship with the ruling systems of organized crime along with the local government and police force, which are also controlled by the cartels. Many businesses and individuals working within the surviving Acapulco tourism industry are forced to make regular payments of extortion money under threat of violence.

While Acapulco remains one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico (and, in fact, anywhere), the cartels that threaten the safety of its people are part of a larger problem of gang control in Mexico and Central America fueled by an international drug market. The demand for drugs created by the U.S. opioid epidemic and the substantial number of legally-purchased American firearms crossing the border into Mexico continue to drive this problem, which in turn continues to drive those affected by it to seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Acapulco, by ReyungCho

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

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