This book is the July reading selection for Read Between the Wines, my book club that has been going strong for more than a decade and which is, consequently, the only reason I still have friends as an adult. Love you guys! It also holds a place on my Reading Challenge as “a book everyone is talking about” at number 49. I will get into this a bit more later in the review. Honestly, this review may devolve into a succinct conversation mainly about the controversy, because there’s not really a good way around it.
After a family tragedy of incomparable proportions Lydia Quixano Perez and her son Luca find themselves fleeing their home in Acapulco for the safe haven of the United States. They join the ranks of countless other migrants who make the journey from various Central American countries fleeing violence and terror at the hands of the cartels. Lydia is personally targeted by the leader of one of the most vicious cartels in Mexico, Los Jardineros, which is a fictional cartel created by the author. His reach spans far and wide, and he will stop at nothing to find her. Lydia and Luca are thrust instantly from their comfortable middle-class existence into desperation and horror, leaving behind everything they’ve ever known for a chance at survival.
This book is an absolute page turner, at least in the first 3/4 of the novel. It’s compelling and impressively crafted. The characters are strong and multi-layered and I felt incredibly invested in their journey. I felt the pacing lagged a bit near the end, especially when our group of migrants was slogging along in the final leg of their journey. However, perhaps this is a bit fitting. There’s really not a great way to do this. The journey of a migrant across an unforgiving desert is long, arduous and harrowing. It’s a kind of mental, emotional, and physical torture most of us couldn’t even imagine. Cummins couldn’t exactly skip over that with a flippant time jump. It would have lessened the power of the story.
So I’m going to get right to the elephant in the room, because I’m severely late to the American Dirt party, and a lot of talk has already been done. This book is a big deal. It has sparked a more than year-old controversy. For that reason, I took in a plethora of reviews, articles and youtube discussion videos about the controversy to provide myself a little context so I could really give a truly informed discourse into my own thoughts. I realize, as a middle class white woman from the Midwest, I have literally zero life experience that gives me any right to even enter this conversation. But as a reader and a reviewer, I owe it to my readers to give my own perspective, so I’ll do my best. I also feel like there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in this discussion, and sometimes passion tends to drown out reason.
In case you’ve been under a rock, the issue surrounding this book revolves around the author also being a white woman who has never and could never experience the events she presents in her book. American Dirt has garnered a host of critics, the harshest of which is the woman whose original review sparked the initial controversy, Myriam Gurba. In her review she titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature,” she rails against what she sees as a white Trumpian agenda to present all Mexicans in a sterotypical lens. In amongst other vitriolic statements she asserts:
“Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.”– Myriam Gurba
Look… as I said, as white woman, I am absolutely not in the shoes of a Latinx person who has sat back for years and watched their peers struggle to get their own works about the Latinx and/or migrant experience published. I can completely understand why it’s difficult to see a white savior sweep in with a story she can’t own and make it to the bestseller list overnight thanks to Oprah and her powerful marketing team. I can not and I will not tell anyone they don’t have a right to feel bitter over that. But I do ask that we stop and consider whether this is a conscious grievance on the part of the author or if it points to a larger issue within the publishing world?
That being said, I feel this controversy took on a much too aggressive and vehement tone from the get-go, and the severity of the criticism seems completely unwarranted. What Gurba sees as harmful stereotyping comes across to me as the opposite. Sure, you have the violent gang members of the Los Jardineros, but we would be kidding ourselves to pretend that the cartels don’t actually exist. Do a quick google search and you’ll run across numerous stories such as this one about Acapulco’s place as one of the murder capitals of the world thanks to violence perpetuated by the cartels. Since when are we no longer allowed to portray something authentic simply because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable? Migrants really do make harrowing journeys to escape the violence of gangs. The important factor is that these villainous characters are juxtaposed with Lydia and her family and many other characters along the way. Lydia is a college educated middle class business owner. Her husband is a well-known journalist in Acapulco. They live a nice, cushy life of privilege until Lydia is forced to abandon that life in order to save her son. Through the entirety of the novel, I saw a whole host of characters presented who painted a picture of Mexico as a country rich with diversity of culture, language, expertise, and character.
Frankly, even as a white woman, I had no trouble putting myself in Lydia’s shoes. I certainly didn’t see myself as above her. I thought about the emotions that would come with having to drag my children on a journey no person should ever have to be forced to make, much less a child who should be able to take time to grieve. I saw this story as a human story. It was a story about a mother and her child, about strength and perseverance. Also, there was no presence of the white savior in the novel. As a matter of fact, the only white person encountered in the book was extremely reluctant to help Lydia and Luca until her Mexican husband convinced her it was their duty as Christians to aid their fellow humans. Was Cummins necessarily the person who should tell this story? No. But did she do it just to capitalize on the trauma of her fellow humans? I don’t believe so.
Did she make some mistakes along the way? Yes. I can see that now after reading reviews. Things I didn’t notice while reading the book, like the sloppy way she handles the use of Spanish dialogue. This book was very obviously written for the white gaze. It’s meant to reach across the aisle to well-meaning white North Americans already sympathetic to the migrant cause but possibly not knowing much about Mexican culture. It was written for me, basically. I own that. I understand that. I make no excuses for that or for my response to it, because it wouldn’t do any good anyway. I absolutely understand that I didn’t pick up on the incongruities in this book because of my ignorance that comes from lack of experience.
What I can say is this…
There are enough real villains. There are enough angry red-blotched faces wearing red hats with their fists held in the air and AR-15’s slung across their shoulders. They clutch those guns, triggers at the ready while they chant their hateful gesticulations inspired by their favorite contrived messiah. Frankly, these people are also villains in the book. I’m not going to view this portrayal as a stereotype of a US citizen, but I’m not going to deny that they exist. And I won’t hate the book simply because they are mentioned. The US territory in this book was shown as being no more safe than the Mexican soil. It was just different armed thugs with guns, vigilantes who didn’t care that the faceless masses also had names.
Why would we turn away from the real threat and fight amongst ourselves? Maybe Cummins didn’t get everything right, but let’s have a real conversation about it. Don’t vilify her for well-meaning ignorance, but applaud her effort and provide something constructive. If we open up a respectful dialogue we can make sure that the next time around we do it better. We can ensure that we heal the fractures in the publishing industry that silence authentic voices and lend credence to the privileged ones. If this is one of the few books, or maybe the first book, you’ve ever read about the Latinx experience, go pick up one from Luis Alberto Urrea, Oscar Martinez or another who could present you with an authentic own voices story.
The result of the manufactured vitriol that came from a good place but fell short is that it spiraled out of control. Now the goodreads page for this book is peppered with reviews from people who didn’t read the book but piled on the hate. Is that constructive? Absolutely not. Frankly, getting angry because Cummins made money off this book is ridiculous. Maybe the story wasn’t hers to tell, but she told it anyway and she spent years researching and writing. She put in the work and it sold well, so good for her. I judge by the book and not by the author. And maybe it stings a little, but she really did have a good impact on advocacy.
I can tell you right now that there is some middle-aged white lady somewhere in the United States who has sat back and listened to loud voices railing against “the illegals” and “the rapists and murderers” coming from the Southern border. And she hadn’t really made up her mind yet, but what they all said gave her pause. She lived a little bit in fear because she didn’t know any better. Maybe she even voted for Donald Trump both times because he seemed to make good points when translated by the most unsophisticated and fear-driven corners of her mind. But then someone in her once-a-month suburban book club chose this book because Oprah said it was amazing and it opened her eyes to a perspective she hadn’t yet considered. And maybe now she finds herself feeling a little bit more empathy for her fellow human beings. I truly ask you, is that such a bad thing? That even one person who wasn’t previously an ally became an ally?
Anyway, this book review has become a bit more of a rant, but I do feel strongly about the fact that literature has a huge impact, but we control the narrative. If we go completely negative and drive the narrative to a place that’s no longer constructive, we will never improve things for other writers. Yes, there are negatives to this book, but I really feel like the potential positives outweigh the negatives. If anything, it caused us to talk about this. It has brought attention to the authors we SHOULD be reading who do lend authentic voices to sensitive subjects. And really, go out and read them. For some great ideas, you can visit this post by Christy Thomas through the Oakland Public library with 15 titles by Mexican, Mexican-American and Chicanx authors you should read.
Overall, though I know I didn’t really focus enough on the book as a whole, I do hope you at least give this a chance. I also realize I’m a full year and a half too late, but I’m usually behind thanks to my hectic life. American Dirt is a very exciting page-turner of a thriller, but it does have a great and important story to tell. I give it 4 stars.
Published January 21, 2020 by Flat Iron books. Hardcover. 459 pages.