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.

Goodbye Dolly

This time last year, October 2020, our companion pony had to be put to sleep. It was a very sad day and the short piece that follows reminds me of how much love is a filter for all of our other emotions. 

Since Dolly died we have had a new and unexpectedly sparky addition to the family. The Greyhorse didn’t immediately fall in love with Birdy; he still grieved for his wheezy little Shetland. But after a few weeks this fiesty little Welsh Section B mare won his heart.

When Dolly Died

It’s only a pony but only a pony is so much more. When the vet said “she can’t go on like this” it was bad enough. When he ran through the vital signs, “heart’s racing, breathing 47 breaths a minute, and should be 22” When he sighed a heavy sigh and gave us that long look. Little Dolly staring blank at the soft autumn air. The Greyhorse standing off pulling at his hay, suddenly nodding every minute or so, squirrels bold bouncing across the ground to hide acorns almost as big as their heads. The air was so still in that moment, and there was no longer the crackle and wheeze of Dolly’s breath. Her lungs had so much scar tissue that there was no movement sufficient for a crackle or a wheeze. She stood with her hind legs stretched behind her ignoring the remains of her lunch. We’d been desperately tempting her with all sorts of yummy food, every hour something else, every morning looking in hope to see if she’d finished her last night’s food. But she didn’t and now it was time.

What a little, not-so-little, cutie.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. Two weeks before we had heard awful news of the death of an old friend. A friend whose death was expected, though not so soon. It was too soon, always too soon for those we love. And standing there in the golden light Dolly was waiting. Standing there in the golden light there was a door, a passage slowly widening, and slowly filling with immense leaden sorrow. Sorrow for those left behind, for those whose strength is falling away, for those whose life is soon ending. And through it Dolly passed, gently, easily and soon lay still, still with us but gone. All that we have lost remains somewhere, somehow.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t go to the funeral because there are limits on gatherings, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t visit the frail because we might kill them. They might kill us, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. The shepherd is waiting. Good bye Dolly.

The 10 Freedoms of Brexit (from February 2020)

A lady was bleating on the radio the other day, euphoric that the UK was out of the European Union and that she was free. Apart from concerns as to the curious life the lady must lead, it occured to me that she was right, absolutely right that she, we, all of us are now free and here are ten reasons why. Ten or two*. Choose the ones that matter most to you. Add to the list.

  1. The freedom to buy health insurance for European travel.

2. The freedom to for pets’ passports not to count anymore.

3. The freedom to bring back a lone bottle of duty free booze.

4. The freedom to queue at European immigration desks.

5. The freedom to pay more for using a cash cards in the EU.

6. The freedom to pay more for flights.

7. The freedom to bathe in polluted rivers and seas.

8. The freedom to pay more for cheese, avocados et al.

9. The freedom to have an understaffed NHS, too few hauliers and food processors.

10. The freedom to be vulnerable to energy supply shortages and high prices.

*There are two kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

There are more freedoms …

The freedom to pay VAT, duties and customs fees on parcels from Europe.

The freedom to worry if medical supplies are slowing.

The freedom to sit in endless jams at the ports.

The freedom to carry green card proof of insurance plus the extra premium, when driving in the EU.

The freedom to enjoy cratering quality of life.

The freedom to have to buy an international driving license.

The freedom for scientists to work alone and with reduced funding.

The freedom for students not to participate in funded foreign exchanges.

The freedom to not go on duty free booze runs to Calais.

… and pity (or not) the poor expat Brexiteers who are being chucked out of Spain.

Keeping the passion alive?

Whether you’re a writer or not, sometimes doing the same old same old day after day can get a little dreary, tedious even. And you find the contact problem gets harder and harder to solve. Much as you want to, you just can’t seem to keep your bottom in contact with the chair or your fingers in contact with the keyboard.

Any excuse will do: answering emails even the really uninteresting ones, checking to see if the postman’s been, having yet another cup of tea and having to go to the loo even more often. Doing the laundrey. You start to wonder if you should rearrange your knicker drawer, or straighten your speaker wires, maybe colour code the food in your freezer. In extreme cases, even the hoovering is irresistable. And the contact problem isn’t just about making contact with the chair. How often have you decided that your keyboard, screen and mouse need a thorough clean or at least a good scrape around with your fingernail or the scissors? Anything but look at the screen and keeping your fingertips in touch. But the contact problem must be brutally addressed, otherwise your chosen profession becomes a hobby. Don’t use excuses of any description, especially not that you have writer’s block. Sit down and get on with it, even if it’s just a limerick or a haikuor a comment on someone else’s bookish blog.

As you sink reluctantly into place, cracking your knuckles, fiddling with mouse and screen angle, it might help to remember that writing is like any passion. What keeps it alive is doing it over and over again because you love it, even if you might occasionally forget that you love it. Like sex it can get better every time, but not necessarily always, every time. You know from experience that there will be lows and highs, and even just middlings. But you never know which it will be so you keep at it. You hope and know that this is something you have to do, because without it you’ll turn into a neurotic and potentially violent mess. Remember that you learn from every encounter, whether it is with a lover, a favourite walk, or a book, or your work. Doing it is the point, and avoiding it will make you miserable.

This is definitely not a good way to solve the contact problem. No matter how much you love your shoes, keep them and your feet underneath the desk and get on with your work.

It’s as true for readers as well as writers. They and we want to keep on reading and writing because we are all constantly looking for connections, big or small, intense or feeble. We write to express something we don’t necessarily understand, because it takes a reader to give the work meaning. Otherwise it’s just hollow words on a page, a bunch of random shapes and glyphs. I have spent pretty much my entire career selling words and continue to do so, but not every one of those years of articles or projects has been an unmitigated thrill. Many times I still sit down and stare blank and empty at the page or screen. I watch the clock out of the corner of my eye. I see it tick away the moments as a deadline slowly rises dark and gloomy into unwelcome view.

For writers there is no other choice, but to ignore the gloom and distractions and to keep on writing. It’s the only thing to ease back into place the wayward screw that’s floating loose somewhere deep inside our heads. We keep on writing because without it, the world makes no sense. We must exercise that passion, intense, fleeting, irrational, wild or even crazy as it seems. Passion is about what we cannot rationalise. It’s about the intangible, the indescribable and momentarily knowable, about stimulation and response. Its fleeting nature keeps us coming back for more, like gin and chocolate and all those other marvellous intoxicants that lead us elsewhere from ourselves.

Social media is one such intoxicant. It’s one of the best ways to overcome the contact problem, but it is also corrosive, distractive. It eats away at time and motivation and the depth or durability of its merits are questionable. It strokes our vanity (all is vanity), encourages our voyeuristic tendencies. At its best it’s a tool for finding writers to share with or for growing our readerships. But mostly it’s time-wasting noise. For the rare few to have found a place amongst the noise, that place provides comfort, reassurance that someone hears you, is listening. They may even respond with something sensible beyond the expectation of a response in turn. That might be why whole days can go by with the contact problem solved, and not a word written other than social media monitoring and replies. Overcoming that rather different contact problem is much harder.

Where does getting your novel published actually start?

Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.

It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.

Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.

And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.

The excitement you feel when you see your first cover is matched only by the exhaustion of getting the edits right.

Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.

Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie. 

This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.