Apparently there has been a great deal controversy regarding Jeanine Cummins’s novel, American Dirt. The book has been called “stereotypical,” and an act of “brownface” because a Caucasian author wrote the story of a Mexican woman and her son’s escape from Acapulco to the United States. Apparently Oprah received flack for making it a book club selection. The author, who is writing about a woman running away because of a death threat, actually received death threats. To all of this criticism, I say Good Grief! It’s a novel, a work of fiction. No one should have the right to say who can write a work of fiction. It’s a good story and worth reading, even if it was written by a non-member of the Latinx community.
The novel starts with the horrific murder of a family who was celebrating a quinceanera. Only Lydia Quixano Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, were able to survive by hiding in a bathroom shower stall. Lydia knows the killings were ordered by Javier Crespo Fuentes, the head of a drug cartel in Acapulco, who had been a regular customer in her bookstore. Lydia’s husband, who is among the murdered, was a journalist who had recently published an article about Javier and the cartel. Javier makes it clear that Lydia and Luca must also die.
Unable to get the necessary identification papers to enable them to fly, and knowing that Javier’s men are searching for her, Lydia and Luca’s only way to reach “El Norte (the Texas-Mexico border)” is by riding on top of commercial freight trains heading north which are known as “La Bestia”. The act of getting onto the top of a moving train and then staying on the train is extremely dangerous. There is a grave risk of being robbed, raped, kidnapped, or murdered. The trains are sometimes stopped by cartels and the migrants are forced off. Then there is the danger of walking across the desert into America. Besides the threat of dehydration, there are also flash floods, wildlife, and no cover to hide under. The migrants must avoid not only border patrol, but also vigilantes who independently hunt illegals. With every mile they move forward, more perils reveal themselves.
I found the characters to be believable and sympathetic. Along the way, Lydia and Luca befriend two teenage sisters and a young boy. They meet people who have lived in the United States but were suddenly deported and put into detention centers and are now trying to get back to the United States. A young man, with the tattoo of Javier’s cartel, shows up at various rest stops. He claims he has left the cartel, but Lydia knows he is not trustworthy. He adds a great deal of tension to the story.
I thought the story was gripping and compelling. I can’t say if this work of fiction is an accurate description of the migrant experience, but I will say that it sparked me to find out more. 5-stars. Book Club recommended. I listened to the Audible version and enjoyed the narration. If you are a member of Goodreads, I would appreciate it if you liked my review on that site.