Title: American Dirt
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Date Read: March 21, 2020
So, Oprah chose this one for her Book Club– and boy, did it stir up some controversy.
The complaints about the book mix concerns with its execution (including what some have said is Spanish not typical of Mexico), the identity of the author and the belief that a Latino writer telling the same story would not get the same support.
The novel tells the story of Lydia, a mother fleeing Mexico with her son, after a drug cartel kills her husband and family. Cummins has been accused of trafficking in stereotypes while appropriating a culture to which she does not belong.
Well, I am no rookie to controversies surrounding the books that Oprah has chosen for her Book Clubs. In 2005, she declared that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was revelatory and that James Frey was the man that kept her up at night.
You know what? Both times, Oprah was right. They were really good books. Regardless of the controversy that spins around them. Because, really, what is story telling? Connecting with another person is one of the highest forms of social being for humans, and at the heart of it is good storytelling. When I’m telling you a story, and you’re engaged in it, you match your thinking with mine. Both Cummins and Frey were able to do this– whether they fictionalized parts of their memoir or if “someone slightly browner” should have written it (as Cummins concedes in her Author’s Notes). More importantly, she did spend four years researching and writing the novel, but she also was compelled to write the story because she was frustrated by the discourse surrounding immigration in the United States.
I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago — and it has gotten exponentially worse since then — were characterized within that public discourse. At worse, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamouring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.(Cummins, p.381)
Cummins drew me in to Lydia’s story. I pained for her incomprehensible loss; I was bereft, as she was, at the impossible choices left for her and her son, Luca. I followed their journey through Mexico to the border with breath caught in my lungs and my heart in my stomach.
This is emotional story telling, balanced with terror. It is Narcos layered with This Is Us. It is about a mother who simply will not give up– because her son moves her to defy all the odds placed at her feet. It is fear and hope, and love and pain all mixed into a riveting page-turner I could not put down. Ignore the controversy. Read it.