When I received the audiobook of “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, I was not aware of the controversy surrounding it. All I saw was a story about Lydia, a Mexican woman, the owner of a bookstore in Acapulco, whose entire family is slaughtered by narcotraficantes (drug dealers) after her journalist husband publishes an exposé of the local drug cartel king. It’s about her journey with her 8-year-old son north to America with other migrants trying to hide and escape the killers’ search for the two of them.
I love bookstores. I also love Mexico and lived there for over two years many, many years ago. So this book intrigued me. The story starts with a bang, literally, as the killers enter the scene of the celebration of the quinceñera of Lydia’s niece, where they kill two children, their parents, Lydia’s mother, Lydia’s husband, and others as Lydia and Luca, her son, hide in the bathroom shower stall where they had gone when Luca needed to use the bathroom. The killers do not find them.
Immediately, we know that Lydia cannot trust the police. That is a fact that obviously has not changed in the decades since I lived in Mexico. The police there are mostly uneducated and very poorly paid. They used to simply want bribes to make traffic violations go away. According to the story, they now accept larger bribes to help the cartels do business while they look the other way.
The story is gripping. I will say that in this case, I might have preferred to read the book rather than listen to it on tape, but that is because some of the writing included long descriptions with similes and metaphors that at times seemed forced. I wanted to know what was happening to Lydia and her son. Instead I had to listen to lots of figurative language which occasionally seemed gratuitous. If I were reading the book, I could simply skip over those parts, but listening forces one to listen to every drawn-out word.
The story is believable, at least to this gringa. Mexicans are portrayed like people anywhere — some kind and compassionate, others hateful and violent. (Spoiler alert from here to the end of this paragraph) One mistake that I found surprising was when Cummins wrote that the migrants, while journeying across the desert, were walking in the bottom of an arroyo. That’s the bottom of a dry river bed. It started to rain. The coyote who is leading them knows the desert, and in the group is a guy who was a PhD student of desert animals. Both of them would know that when it begins to rain, it’s immediately time to get out of the arroyo — fast. Rain can cause flash floods, and when one hikes in canyons in the desert, there are warnings at trail heads and on maps. Although I don’t hike, I went to college in Tucson, and I know better. Yet the group continued to walk along the bottom of the arroyo until — surprise — there was a flash flood. Both the author and the editor should have known better.
The narrator of the audio version of the novel is Yareli Arizmendi, and it is immediately apparent that she is not a native speaker of English. Her delivery is excellent, and the fact that she can pronounce the Spanish phrases that are liberally sprinkled in the story with authenticity is a real bonus.
As to the the huge controversy this novel has engendered, I can only comment that I really enjoyed the story. I do think that the five years the author spent researching migrants and trying to make her book as authentic and real as possible show she did due diligence — as much as any author could do. The fact that Jeanine Cummins is not Latina? Does that mean that you can only write a book set in Mexico if you are Mexican? To extrapolate, you could only write a book set in Chile if you are from Chile. And so on.
Fiction is just that. And a good story will resonate with readers just as “American Dirt” will give many readers a new perspective on why many migrants come to the U.S. no matter the hardship, the danger, the risks. Cummins movingly writes about the sisters from Honduras and what they endured both before their journey and during their journey. It accomplishes what good fiction should — giving the reader a gripping plot, well- developed characters, and a satisfactory ending. If the readers gain some empathy along the way, that’s a bonus.
Please note: This review is based on the audiobook provided by the publisher, Macmillan Audio, for review purposes.