American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.