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Reviews of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt

A Novel

by Jeanine Cummins
  • Critics' Opinion:
  • Readers' Opinion:
  • First Published:
  • Jan 21, 2020
  • Paperback:
  • Feb 2022
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About This Book

Book Summary

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.

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.

See BookBrowse's blog for an explanation of the American Dirt controversy.


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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will 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 ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about American Dirt.
You can see the full discussion here.

American Dirt has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath. Have you read the latter book, and if so, what parallels do you see between the two?
Yes, Grapes of Wrath is a favorite book of mine. The parallels I see are poverty and freedom. The need to be free is paramount in each book. Running to escape and find a better future. Both families are running in poverty - unable to buy their way to... - taking.mytime

Controversy over this book
Two of BookBrowse's editors recently published a blog post on the topic, including half a dozen recommendations by Latinx authors which you may find of interest: [link] - davinamw

Did American Dirt change your opinion? Are there other books you'd recommend on this topic?
My forefathers and mothers traveled to the United States as refugees. They lived in danger and escaped with danger surrounding them. I look at Ellis Island and it brings tears to my eyes. We should welcome immigrants with love and compassion, ... - bonnieb

Did you find any of Lydia's actions out of character?
Using Lorenzo’s phone to talk to Javier seemed unnecessary and slightly out of character for Lydia. That struck a dischord for me. The fact that she took time to distance herself from Javier and did not believe her husband’s article would be lethal ... - janeb

Discuss the significance of the title. What do you think the author means by it?
I think the title simple meant, what people will go through to get to American Dirt. The USA. - elainew

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BookBrowse Review


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). 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)...continued

Full Review (710 words)

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(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

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.

David J. Schmidt, Huffington Post
Anyone who has been to Mexico will find the landscape of "American Dirt" quite alien. And yet, certain scenes have a strange ring of authenticity ― which readers of two Latino authors, in particular, will find familiar.

The protagonists' train trip is strikingly similar to one in "Enrique's Journey." Cummins' descriptions of a garbage dump in Tijuana and the border itself, as well as the trash truck scene, bear resemblance to passages in Urrea's "By the Lake of Sleeping Children" as well as "Across the Wire."

John Warner, Chicago Tribune
Cummins is not being criticized because she is a non-Mexican person writing about the Mexican experience. She is being criticized because she is a non-Mexican person writing about the Mexican experience poorly.

Parul Sehgal, New York Times
The motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails...But does the book's shallowness paradoxically explain the excitement surrounding it? The tortured sentences aside, American Dirt is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that "these people are people," while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.

Myriam Gurba, Tropics of Meta
In order to choke down Dirt, I developed a survival strategy. It required that I give myself over to the project of zealously hate-reading the book, filling its margins with phrases like "Pendeja, please." That's a Spanglish analogue for "Bitch, please."

Back in Alta California, I sat at my kitchen table and penned my review. I submitted it. Waited.

After a few days, an editor responded. She wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was "spectacular," I lacked the fame to pen something so "negative." She offered to reconsider if I changed my wording, if I wrote "something redeeming."

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.

Slate, Leon Krauze
[T]he real problem here [is] the decision to package and sell American Dirt not as candy, but as fiction that should be interpreted as emblematic. Flatiron Books, the otherwise remarkable writers who offered blurbs, and those who have promoted the book as if Cummins truly were the reincarnation of John Steinbeck have all insisted American Dirt is a transformational work of art, aimed to inspire a deeper debate about violence, immigration, and American nativism. That cannot happen with characters whom immigrants themselves could never relate to. The Great American Novel and the great novel of the Americas about violence, loss, and immigration is still waiting to be written.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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 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.

Reader Reviews

Cathryn Conroy

A Suspenseful and Terrifying Thriller That Doubles as Current Events
This is a quick-to-read, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thriller by Jeanine Cummins that tracks in often gruesome detail the path of a mother and son as they migrate from Mexico to the United States to escape a brutal drug cartel that wants them both ...   Read More

American Dirt
It’s been awhile since I read this book but what still stands out to me is this book brings the understanding of of the horrific circumstances immigrants from Central America are escaping. While we understand the immigration problem in our country, ...   Read More

American Dirt
Best book I have read in a long while. Gripping. Highlights the plight of migrants having to flee violence and poverty or both and reinforces how resourceful and courageous they have to be to undertake long journeys to try to reach safety.
Page Larkin

Loved it and Read it twice
A pal suggested this book… on a whim I picked it up. I was intrigued from page one! Fabulous characters, storyline, and development. Listened to the book on the Libby app, too. As a result of my enthusiasm, My book club also read/loved the book.

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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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