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American Dirt

A Novel

by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins X
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
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  • Published:
    Jan 2020, 400 pages


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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.
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.

American Dirt
Well written and heart stopping. Kept me spellbound.
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.
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.
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.
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. 

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

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