American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This is a profoundly moving story of a perilous escape to El Norte (America) by a mother (Lydia) and her eight-year-old son (Luca) across Mexico. It deals with robberies, rape, dangerous journeys on the top of trains, through deserts all while being followed by members of a cruel cartel. Their journey is prompted by the massacre of Lydia’s family, including her husband Sebastian, a journalist who is trying to expose the cartel, at her niece Yenifer’s birthday party by the local cartel leader Javier.

The book moves at a dramatic pace and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It has been described as a modern-day Odyssey (American Dirt – A Desperate Odyssey – The Guardian – by Beejay Silcox 15 January 2020). Don Winslow called it a ‘Grapes of Wrath of our times’, (Evening Standard – 31 March 2020 Katie Law).

There have also been a number of objections to this book. Firstly, along the lines of cultural appropriation and secondly because it is argued that it is inauthentic to the immigrant experience and poorly written. Those who argue it is inauthentic have often not even read the book or have read it with a preconception that it is poorly written or contrived.

The Latin American and Mexican community have argued it is wrong that a white woman’s version (Cummins is in fact of Puerto Rican dissent) of such an escape should garner so much attention whilst so many books by Latino authors with similar escape stories to American Dirt get ignored. One article quoted Latin works such as Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario and The Beast by Oscar Martinex as being books that were not given the same attention. (American Dirt controversy explained article / American Dirt book- controversy explained). [NB I since found out at Bookclub that Nazario is in fact Argentinian not Mexican].

They also objected to Jeannie Cummins comments in her authors notes that ‘she wished someone browner than her had written the book’ and that she emphasised because her husband was also an undocumented illegal, when in fact he was actually Irish, not Latino.

I don’t think that she had no right to write this book because she was white. I think that is a kind of reverse racism. I do think her motives were good and I do think she tried her best to meticulously research this book. I think perhaps her authors note at the end of the book was clumsy and her wording could have been a bit better, but it was heartfelt.

It is wrong that Latino authors are underrepresented in the literary world and can’t get taken on by publishers because of structural racism but does that mean that she shouldn’t be published because she is white?  Especially as by all accounts Cummins motives and intentions are to humanise and personalise the struggle that immigrants face and put a face to their suffering in order to end prejudice and persecution. Objectors are shooting themselves in the foot – this book has raised the profile dramatically of the plight that immigrants face. Isn’t that a good thing?

This was a book I couldn’t put down. It kept me riveted from beginning to end.

So what did Bookclub think?

Jan started off the meeting by confronting the controversy head-on saying that Cummins had been accused of cultural liberties and of turning a serious immigration issue into a thriller. She agreed with me that it was great as a thriller and said that by turning it into a thriller it had allowed her to reach a wider audience.

We discussed Cummins’ cultural background and her husband’s.  Jan pointed out that Cummins was born in Spain to parents who were stationed there and she had no connection with Mexico. We talked about how her husband who was Irish and not a Mexican illegal and Anne-Marie said that the Irish were hardly ever deported as there were so many Irish in the INS and FBI.

We talked about Cummins motivation for writing the novel. Jan said that she had hesitated writing it from a Mexican perspective but that the grief over the loss of her father gave her the courage to write it from a Mexican perspective and that she had researched the book for over five years.

I asked why a white person couldn’t write the book and if that was a form of reverse racism? Michelle said no, it wasn’t so much an inditement of her, it was an inditement of the publishing industry. They were arguing that if you were not white you couldn’t get a publishing deal. It was a criticism of structural racism in the publishing industry.

Lisa asked why weren’t there other Mexican writers? She said it was probably because they had more at stake. Maybe they didn’t want to write their stories because they were scared there would be retribution to their families at home.

Anne-Marie said it was sad that sometimes people wanted a white face to tell the story. She said it was like ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey which turned out to be fake; if the story hadn’t been told by a preppie American maybe it wouldn’t have been so popular.

Lisa felt like many of us, that controversy had increased sales, even the use of barbed wire on the front of the book and her not going to a signing because of a security threat added to the publicity and sales of this book.

Many at bookclub felt like Michelle, that it didn’t feel authentic, that there were too many plot lines that didn’t make sense. Jan also asked ‘did all the stories need to me there’, for example the boy who broke his leg or the Marisol story. She felt some of the stories particularly the latter did not make sense.  

Michelle also felt it was implausible that they wouldn’t have believed they were in danger and they would have taken more precautions. She did however also feel that Cummins had done a lot of research and tried to ‘put every horrific thing’ into the story. She felt the Marisol story was added because it was a hot topic and that people who previously felt safe in America no longer did – and that was why it was added to the mix. Cummins was trying to achieve a purpose by including it.

Lisa also said that she liked the Guardian article that referred to this book as ‘Trauma Porn’ and she had also read a review that compared Lydia to a pearl bag clutching American tourist. Caroline felt it read like a movie.

LA Bestia

Anne-Marie said there were things that were implausible.  A women of comparative wealth like Lydia would never have ridden on La Bestia the train, only the poorest of the poor do, she would have got a friend to drive her to the border. She said it was easy to find people to take you across the border. Anne-Marie in her research as a journalist there had found someone in an hour once.  She said it was almost as if Cummins book was a pastiches of all the facts she had. Jan agreed it was implausible and said that she would have been able to download Lucas birth certificate from a website if she had wanted to. She just needed that as a plot device so she could talk about La Bestia. Yulia agreed and said she would have known she needed documents.

Caroline felt that Javier was implausible. Anne-Maire who had covered the cartels for a major American newspaper in Tijuana said it was not uncommon for drug cartel leaders to dress well or be well read. Jane said it was wrong to stereotype drug lords and that there must be some highly educated ones. Anne-Marie said that she liked what someone had said, that in a better society the narcos would be a Bill Gates, it was just because of lack of opportunity that they became narcos.

We talked about the cartels in Mexico generally. Anne-Marie said 60-80% of Mexico was controlled by cartels. Yulia said it was a good time to publicise the cartels. Michelle had said that she was smart to choose her setting as Acapulco which conjured up glamour. It was if she was trying to depict a fall. Anne-Marie said that Acapulco was beset by cartel violence. She told a true story about ten labourers who had all gone to Acapulco on holiday but who were all shot as they were mistaken for people in another cartel. Jane asked if any of the Americans in the group would still go to Mexico. Jan said she would, but she would wear a money belt and be careful. Anne-Marie said parts of Mexico are still fine, she would stay in the Yucatan but places like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta are dangerous. There is extortion everywhere.

How true was it to the immigrant experience? Anne-Marie had a friend who was a journalist in Mexico who said the book was awful, but again she hadn’t read it. But as Anne-Marie said, this book is going to become a first reference for many in America and at least it publicises the issues. Others like Caroline thought it was probably a good representation of what was actually going on.

Yulia felt that adding Spanish words to the text was unnecessary. You knew they were Spanish, why add Spanish phrases? Anne-Marie agreed and said yes it did sound a bit cartoonish. It was like Ricky Ricardo saying Ay Caramba in a I love Lucy episode.

Jan felt the ending was an anti-climax in that she ended up as a cleaner in Maryland. Yulia hated it that in the end when she was struggling for money Lydia bought expensive books. She felt that was implausible. I didn’t understand how one of the books that she bought was ‘Love In the Time of Cholera’,  a book that Javier had talked to her about  – surely she wouldn’t buy a book that had a connection with him. Michelle had a hard time believing in their relationship from the beginning, let alone why she wanted a connection with him after all he had done.

Putting all the controversies aside Jane did feel it was well written. She said it was vivid and she was scared for them, particularly when they jumped on the train. Anne-Marie said it was very effective that it was written in the present tense.

For all the criticism Cummins has brought this important issue to the surface. As Michelle said – it gives you pause to think and makes you think about the stories.

It is interesting that Anne-Marie said that ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck was a better story of Mexican migration. He wasn’t criticised for not being Mexican.

Despite this we all wanted to know how it ended.

Reviews of the book online

This reviewer hasn’t read the book, but has interesting things to say about the controversy. Read the comments below where one commenter has said that decorating the room with barbed wire centre pieces at the function was akin to celebrating the release of ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by decorating a room as a gas chamber.

This is also an interesting clip on the controversy, all the authors on the panel say that her writing did not ring true, but they also all admit at various times that they haven’t read the book.

Up coming books:-

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

2 November Three women by Lisa Taddeo

Virtual activities:

There are some great talks being run by the National Gallery on Zoom. Many of them are free. My husband and I are going to one with Michael Palin which unfortunately is now fully booked. Details of other talks can be found here

If you still want to see Tenet but don’t want to risk going to a public cinema, it is playing this Friday at the Drive In in Enfield. All films are 50 % off in October.

There is also a heap  of interesting  events been run for Black History Month some of which you can find here:-

2 thoughts on “American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

  1. This is great! One thing: I think you meant to write “Trauma Porn.” Your spellcheck probably turned it into “Trauma Pawn”, which is how it reads now.



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