Wednesday, February 5, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I do not recommend that you read American Dirt. There are better choices if you want to learn about migrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. There are more accurate accounts of those journeys. There are more riveting stories. For me, this wasn't a page-turner. Details that simply didn't feel right kept interrupting my progress and stopped me from caring about what lay on the next page. 

American Dirt tells the story of Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca. Lydia owns a book store in Acapulco and her husband was a journalist whose writing exposed an infamous cartel and its leader. Lydia and the cartel leader had a flirtatious friendship based primarily on their shared love of books. When the book opens Lydia and Luca are in the bathroom of Lydia's mother's home as all sixteen members of their family including Lydia's mother and husband are brutally killed in a massacre in the backyard. Knowing that they're to be the next victims, Lydia and Luca begin running. The book is the story of their journey to the border crossing near Nogales. Their story is filled with graphic murders, hunger, thirst, and death. 

Oprah Winfrey chose American Dirt for her book club recently. After she chose the novel, 138 authors wrote an open letter asking her to rescind the choice. Reviewers have split on the novel with many finding it terrible, many loving it, and one saying it's "A Grapes of Wrath" for our times. The novel's author received a $1,000,000.00 advance which is rare for a relatively unknown writer. The publisher scheduled a tour of over forty U.S. cities. As criticism of the novel increased and tensions grew, the tour was canceled. Some have implied that the criticism of American Dirt is because the author is a white American. Many have risen to her defense noting that fiction is of the imagination so an author doesn't need to be of the same nationality as her characters. My criticism of this novel has nothing to do with who the author is or is not. I don't recommend the book because I found it inaccurate in places, the pace didn't capture me, and I believe that it's been "cribbed" from other novels about migrants. As I read it, I kept feeling that I'd read much of it before.

This book didn't feel authentic to me. I love authors who use food to put us in unfamiliar places. When Lydia and Luca awaken after their first day of running, they order room service. That seemed odd to me as it might draw the attention of the cartel, but I gave it the benefit of my doubt as Lydia was in shock with grief. Grief, however, would not make a Mexican woman order eggs and toast for breakfast when her son probably craved pan dulce. Eggs and toast are what the author or a Midwestern woman like me might want. Later in Mexico City, they stop for tacos in a food court and "Luca asks for extra sour cream, which Lydia finds remarkably comforting." Even this gringo knows that tacos aren't served with sour cream in Mexico.

Lydia and Luca meet and travel with two teenage Honduran sisters, Soledad and Rebeca, who have suffered deeply. They feel like stereotypical victims with their incredible strength and beauty. When Soledad reveals that she's pregnant, Lydia says, "Your baby will be a U.S. citizen." Soledad replies, "The baby isn't mine." There's no more conversation, no questioning from Lydia, and they move on leaving the reader hanging. 

Cummins' strength lies in her descriptions of their surroundings on the journey. She writes beautiful, evocative metaphors: "Luca likes the estates where all the homes are lined up like soldiers wearing identical uniforms: indestructible white stucco walls, helmets of red Spanish tile, all tilted at the same angle to the sun. He likes the anonymity of them, and thinks how nice it would be to live inside one of those houses with Mami, how nobody'd ever find them there."   She also excels at showing how brilliant Luca relies on his knowledge of facts to calm himself when thinking about his father: "He has to fill his mind with other things. The capital of Norway is Oslo. There are 6,852 islands in the Japanese archipelago."

None of that is enough to save this novel though. My greatest concern with the book is that the author uses the words, ideas, and work of Latinx authors as her own. I don't think she did this intentionally, but her naivete isn't an excuse. When Beto, a young migrant, describes his home in the dumps,  las colonias of Tijuana, she notes that Lydia knows of them "because Luis Alberto Urrea is one of her favorite writers, and he's written about the dumps, about kids like Beto who live there." Just two paragraphs later, Cummins writes that Beto's brother Ignacio "was squashed by the back of a garbage truck" and dies "three dreadful days" later. This seemed familiar to me because I'd read it before. It was in one of those books the author had read by Urrea in which he wrote with such compassion of the child who he later held and then buried. To me, her publisher should have caught this. When asked on NPR about charges of her "lifting" from some of the books she cited, Cummins stumbled. 

Many readers are saying that this novel made them care about migrants and motivated them to contribute to organizations helping them. That may be, but if readers need a novel to make the terror of migrants' lives seem real, read Urrea, read Valeria Luiselli, or read the others Cummins notes that she read. Don't read this. 

If you want an unbiased view of the controversy about American Dirt, listen to all 53 minutes of "Digging into the Dirt," an NPR podcast, with Maria Hinojosa interviewing author Jeanine Cummins, critic Miriam Gurba, who wrote the first negative review of the book,  author Sandra Cisneros, who loved the book, and author Luis Alberto Urrea who speaks to the use of his work.

Summing it Up: American Dirt wasn't a page-turner for this reader. It didn't feel authentic. I felt I'd read much of it before. You may want to read more about this controversy and how it has made Macmillan, the publisher, vow to make changes and increase their Latinx staff. That alone would make for a great discussion. There are many positive and negative reviews of this novel. I've included links to some of them at the end of this review.

Rating: 2 stars  

Category: Fiction, Book Club

Publication date: January 21, 2020

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