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American Dirt – novel set mainly in Mexico

21st February 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, novel set mainly in Mexico.

novel set mainly in Mexico

The book is causing rather a to-do in the publishing world at the moment. Author Jeanine Cummins – a white American, albeit with some Puerto Rican heritage – has been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ for daring to write a book about Mexicans and Central Americans trying to survive the brutal migrant trail and find a way across the US border.

The story starts violently, in palm-fringed Acapulco. Once a peaceful, affluent, tourist city it has now succumbed to the all-powerful drug cartels. Bookshop owner Lydia Perez is cowering in the bathroom with her 8 year-old son Luca. Outside on the lawn, sixteen of her family – including journalist husband Sebastian – have been slaughtered whilst barbecuing chicken for a family celebration.

There’s a blessing in the moments after terror and before confirmation. When at last he moves his body, Luca experiences a brief, lurching exhilaration at the very fact of his being alive. For a moment he enjoys the ragged passage of breath through his chest.

This early part of the novel is the strongest for me, when Lydia’s sole remaining motivation is to save Luca and as they begin to head to ‘el norte‘ in search of safety. Slowly, we hear how Lydia and Sebastian met, and how Lydia has unwittingly befriended the murderous, yet intelligent and charismatic, head of the Los Jardineros cartel controlling Acapulco and bloody swathes of northern Mexico.

The author took four years to research and write this important novel. It shows, as Lydia and Luca exhibit qualities they were unaware of in following the migrant trail north, initially by jumping on and off ‘La Bestia‘ – the train heading towards the Holy Grail – and then through different stages of their treacherous journey.

I found the story diluted a little by the cast of characters they meet and accumulate along the way, and by some of the melodramatic language, including overly frequent use of italicised Hispanic words and phrases. But that should not detract from the reader’s shock at what Lydia, Luca and all other migrants – fictional and in reality – face on this well-trodden route of nightmares.

When the two vans arrive, the officers open the back doors and usher the migrants inside. There are no seats or windows. They are unmarked cargo vans and Lydia knows that probably means they’re all going to die.

The author anticipates some reaction to telling this story, though surely can’t have expected the level of vitriol, intense media scrutiny and even having some of her book tours cancelled.

In the author’s note, she says: ‘when I decided to write this book, I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have. I worried that, as a non-migrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then I thought, “If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” So I began.’

I’m glad you did, Jeanine.

In the end, I came to think of American Dirt as a page-turning thriller, rather than as a literary classic. But it is still an important story, well-researched and told well enough.

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

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