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American Dirt

By Jeanine Cummins, a controversial novel about a timely and important topic

Brief Summary
Detailed Summary
Read it or Skip It?

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has been the most talked about novel of the new decade so far (though keep in mind that I’m writing this in January 2020), for both good reasons and bad. It was sold in what was reported to be a seven-figure deal and has a movie in the works. It also received praise from a lot of big names like Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, Ophrah and various literary gatekeepers.

As for the negative buzz, well, there’s been a lot of that, too. More accurately, it’s been accused of being a one-dimensional portrayal of Mexico and being exploitative. Commentators have also pointed out factual inaccuracies about Mexico, an over-reliance on stereotypes, and the strange foreign gaze that the Mexican protagonist has.

So, what’s the deal, and should you read this novel? Since most of the reviews thus far have been largely polarized, either a) willfully ignorant of any criticisms, or b) focused almost entirely on its flaws, I was curious to take a look.

Oprah's Book Club Pick

Oprah’s Book Club Pick

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

In American Dirt, after her journalist husband runs afoul of cartel boss Javier Fuentes, Lydia’s entire family is murdered with the exception of her young son, Luca. Now, Lydia and Luca must run for their lives to try to leave Mexico despite the many dangers lurking along the difficult journey and with Fuentes and his men nipping at their heels.

Action-packed and suspenseful, American Dirt is a thriller that tells a story about migration into the United States.

See American Dirt on Amazon.

Book Review: The Good Stuff

American Dirt is very much a thriller in that there’s plenty of chases, suspense and a lot of action in the novel. The backstory for the characters and the writing are superior to your standard thriller. Parul Segal wrote a review of it that (accurately) lambastes some of the writing as being tortured or otherwise questionable, but honestly it’s still a large step up from your average thriller. It’s maybe a bit long-winded, but really I think most people will be fine with the writing.

If I hadn’t known about the criticisms, it would not have seemed overtly apparent to me that the book was problematic (with some exceptions, see below). There wasn’t a ton that stuck out to me when I first started reading, beyond a standard level of nit-picks. I would have wondered about the accuracy in general, but I wouldn’t know one way or another since I am neither from Mexico or of Mexican heritage.

To be clear, this is not a book where no effort has been made to do any research. Parts of the novel contain many details which clearly are the result of diligent research. For example, there’s much specificity in discussing conditions on La Bestia, a freight train, and the impact of Programa Frontera Sur, a joint U.S.-Mexican funded initiative to keep migrants off the train. And yet, it’s unfortunate that the result is still a book that has some issues (see below).

The book also does try to incorporate a range of experiences and types of migrants in order to paint a fuller picture of the experience of trying to cross the border, though the main focus is on the journey from Mexico (as opposed to from Central America) since that’s where the story is set. It’s clear the plot has been contorted to some extent to bring in these aspects of the story, but I can understand why Cummins would try to do this. I do think she did a good job of working these things into the narrative. (But of course, how accurate any of these depictions are is questionable, so I take it all with a grain of salt.)

American Dirt: General Criticisms

In terms of the story, there are quite a few questionable plot decisions and characterizations. Everyone is either a murderer/rapist or a saint, and the characters rarely have to make hard decisions. Our protagonist Lydia is especially saintly, and yet also kind of stupid. Why would she think it wasn’t necessary to have any safety precautions with her husband publishing an expose on a cartel boss? Why does she rely on begging for food when she has thousands of pesos on hand and hundreds of thousands in the bank? Why doesn’t she (a middle-class woman) know that you need documentation to ride a plane?

Meanwhile, Lydia’s son Luca is eight years old but says stuff like “your help would be a significant advantage” when asking for help. Luca also lashes out at random guards, criminals and whatnot, and they all laugh it off because they find him so cute and precocious. I’ve never tried crossing the border, but my instinct is that acting brash, but cute is not a great strategy.

A bigger issue that other reviewers have pointed out is Lydia’s “foreign gaze” when it comes to journeying through Mexico. Her reactions do seem oddly similar to how a foreigner would react to situations. Additionally, a noticeably irritating aspect of the story is the repeated references to “brown” skin. It’s just “skin,” okay? Unless there’s something noteworthy about the color, you can just refer to it as “skin.”

American Dirt: Cultural Inaccuracies

In terms of the cultural inaccuracies, I’m not from Mexico or of Mexican heritage so I can’t really assess how accurate the depiction of Mexico is. I will instead rely on what other reviewers have said. Four widely shared articles that are critical of the book can be found here, here, here and here.

For example, an issue that’s been brought up is the stereotypes about Mexico that many feel are pervasive throughout the book. There seems to be a common commentary that it paints Mexico as only being overrun with drugs, crime or corruption and not much else. Furthermore, Cummins throws in a wide range of stereotypically Mexican/Mexican-ish things. Just in the first few chapters, things like quinceañeras, Carne asada, random Spanish words, and so on all make appearances. I’d imagine its similar to if someone wrote a book about an American family that dresses in red, white and blue, eats hot dogs all the time and decorates their house with pictures of eagles.

Another example of the lack of authenticity that has been pointed out by a reviewer on Amazon. The characters wonder why a gang leader is nicknamed “La Lechuza”, which means “the owl”, since owls aren’t scary. The reviewer clarifies that a “lechuza” is more specifically a screech owl that has been considered an omen and harbinger of death in Mexican culture for thousands of years, which any Mexican would know (according to that person).

Of course, the sad fact is that literature, including stuff taught in schools, is rife with inaccuracies and inaccurate portrayals of places or people. Some books, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, are blatantly problematic. Others, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, on further inspection, misrepresent the societies they are depicting and contradict historical records. And then there’s stuff like Robinson Crusoe where it’s a classic but few reading it would assume it was ever meant to be a fact-based story. But these stories all end up shaping our perceptions nonetheless, so it seems like we should be striving for something better.

I also think reviewers should be more honest about what they don’t know. People need to be allowed to write about cultures they are not a part of, or review books from heritages that are not their own. However, when a non-Mexican writer publishes a book about Mexico and a non-Mexican reviewer declares its “authenticity,” any responsible editor should find that highly suspect.

Writing About Other Cultures

As mentioned above, in my opinion, writers must be able to write about people outside of themselves. That said, I think that comes with it the burden of doing the work to portray other cultures or people accurately and responsibly. Furthermore, for sensitive topics, I think that burden is especially high. (If a publisher is worried about that burden, finding writers that have first-hand experience is always an option!)

For example, they have the responsibility to ensure that it’s not full of stereotypes or otherwise exploitative. Unfortunately, American Dirt is guilty of both these things. It leans on stereotypes about Mexico and the treatment of the subject matter feels exploitative to a lot of people. I can certainly see why a publisher choosing to promote a book on a sensitive topic of great importance and relevance without proper diligence would feel extremely exploitative to people who know that place and have lived that pain.

When reporters shove a microphone in someone’s face after they’ve experienced trauma, it’s exploitative. In much the same way, misrepresenting the story and culture of immigrants when those people are currently under attack by U.S. leaders (and using the symbols of their trauma as decoration as parties, see below) shows very poor judgement.

One thing I’ll say in Cummin’s defense is that I doubt she imagined when she submitted the book that it would end up being this large of a release. It’s not to say that it excuses whatever inaccuracies entirely, but I imagine if she’d known it would be so widely read and if she’d had the resources she has now, perhaps some parts of the book would have been shaped differently. And the decision to promote this specific book (over other more authentic voices) is ultimately up to the publisher, not the author. I’ll finally add that I think book twitter has gotten too vitriolic. There is a difference between being critical and being hateful.

More Controversy and Barbed Wire Centerpieces

To make matters worse, the Flatiron Books launch party for American Dirt made the extremely questionable decision to feature barbed wire centerpieces. Honestly, who thought this was a good idea? Would you use nooses as decor to launch a book about America’s racist history? Or small planes as decor for a book about September 11?

american dirt flatiron books launch party barbed wire centerpiece

Barbed Wire Centerpieces, From Flatiron Book’s American Dirt Launch Party

I don’t doubt that there were many people with only pure intentions in the publishing process. But stuff like this really does reinforce the idea that this is just a big publishing house capitalizing on and exploiting the pain of immigrants without any genuine concern for their plight.

Read it or Skip it?

Obviously, a book can be two things at once. American Dirt is a book that tells a well-paced story that is timely and accessible. However, it’s also a book that has many issues and inaccuracies. I wouldn’t rely on it to enhance your understanding of Mexico, and while it does contain some information about the difficulties migrants face, I would also take it all with a grain of salt.

(Furthermore, there are clearly systemic issues that allowed those problems to be ignored on its way to publication. And I think recommending this book without making others aware of the problems with it is a little irresponsible.)

Aside from any cultural stuff, it doesn’t take an expert to know that this story lacks realism in parts. The characterizations are questionable, and there’s an odd lack of hard decisions that need to be made in this situation that necessitates hard decisions. This is not to say the story isn’t suspenseful or interesting for people who enjoy thrillers, though.

For some other titles dealing in similar territory, check out The Devil’s Highway by Mexican author Luis Alberto Urrea, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Colombian author Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, or The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero.

I would love to hear others’ opinions on this book! Feel free to drop a comment below. I promise to give any (civil) comment genuine, open-minded consideration, especially when it comes to opposing perspectives. Happy reading!

See American Dirt on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Quick Synopsis

The section-by-section summary is below, but here's the quick version. Lydia Quixano's entire family is gunned down after her journalist husband, Sebastian, publishes an expose on a cartel boss, Javier Fuentes. Javier is the leader of Los Jardineros and had also been a close personal friend of Lydia's. She met him as a customer at her bookstore. Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca are the sole survivors in the attack, and they must flee Mexico.

Lydia and Luca travel north by bus from Acapulco to Chilpancingo to find Carlos, a friend of Sebastian's. Carlos's wife Meredith puts them in a van pretending to be with a group of American missionaries to get to Mexico City. The goal is to fly to a border city to cross, but at the airport, Lydia has no documentation for Luca. Instead, they continue on foot to Huehuetoca and stay at a migrant shelter. They come across two teen girls, Soledad and Rebeca, who teach them how to get on and off La Bestia, a freight train that migrants commonly hitch a ride on, though it requires jumping onto a moving train. Soledad and Rebeca are from Honduras and are fleeing from a gang leader who has taken an interest in them. Soledad is pregnant by rape. They are headed to Maryland, where their cousin Cesar lives.

On La Bestia, they meet Lorenzo, a man who was part of Los Jardineros and recognizes Lydia as a target they're after, but Lorenzo claims that he is fleeing that lifestyle. Lorenzo tells Lydia that Javier's daughter Marta killed herself three days after learning the secret about her father. At a shelter, the two girls call home to find out their father was stabbed by the man they are running from.

Back on board La Bestia, they ride until immigration agents raid the train. They are then rounded up and taken to a warehouse. As Mexican nationals, Lydia and Luca are free to go (with payment), but Luca demands that they save Soledad and Rebeca. They give up the rest of their money to save them. Soledad miscarries. They continue riding La Bestia and meet a asthmatic, migrant 10-year-old boy, Beto. Together, they all go to Nogales to meet the girls' coyote, El Chacal. Lydia clears out her mother's bank account to pay him $11,000 for her and Luca. They soon find out Lorenzo has hired the same coyote and will be making the two-day journey with them, along with 8 others.

16 days after departing Acapulco, Lydia and Luca cross the border into the United States, but they still have a long trek ahead. One man party breaks his leg and his godfather stays with him so they can go turn themselves into border patrol (as opposed to dying in the desert). The next day, Lorenzo attempts to assault Rebeca, and Soledad shoots him with El Chacal's gun. Lydia finds Lorenzo's cell phone and discovers Lorenzo has been reporting her location to Javier. She calls Javier to tell him that Lorenzo is dead and to leave her alone. In the final leg of the trip, Beto dies from his asthma.

In the epilogue on month later, Lydia and Luca move to Maryland to live with Soledad and Rebeca at their cousin Cesar's house. Lydia gets a job as a house cleaner and the girls are enrolled in school.

Section-by-Section Summary

Chapters 1 - 3

Luca Delgado, 8, and his family are celebrating his cousin quinceañera at his grandmother's house in Acapulco, Mexico when assassins come looking for his father, Sebastián Pérez Delgado. Sebastian is a reporter who had been writing about cartels. Luca and his mother Lydia Quixano hide in the shower until they leave. Outside, the other sixteen members of their family, including Sebastian, are dead when the police arrive.

Lydia knows that only Javier Crespo Fuentes who would do something like this, and she recognizes that his people will come after her when they realize she survived. She packs a bag, grabs all the cash available and tells Luca that they need to leave. In order to prevent being tracked, they take a bus to leave town and stay at a hotel, paying in cash. However, as they settle in, the hotel clerk texts someone to let them know that "two special guests" have checked in.

Chapters 4 - 8

Lydia first met Javier as a customer in her bookstore who she hit it off with. He would come visit occasionally and flirt with her, though they were both married, though it eventually grew into more of a platonic, but intimate friendship. Like her, his father died of cancer as well. During this time, there are warring cartels in Acapulco. Los Jardineros were the new challengers, and their boss is known as La Lechuza. Lydia eventually realizes La Lechuza is Javier. Lydia confides in Sebastian about her friendship with Javier, and also tells Javier that she knows who he is. She sadly tells Javier that she finds his role as a cartel boss irreconcilable.

In present day, Lydia receives a parcel at the hotel. Inside is a book, with a note from Javier. She knows they need to leave, since it means someone knows they're there. Lydia and Luca depart, but they see three black SUVs following them. Luca has a perfect sense of direction, and directs them to the bus depot. As they ride toward Mexico City, Lydia hopes there will be no roadblocks, since they may be dangerous if they are controlled by gangs (including police and soldiers who are part of these gangs).

They get off the bus in Chilpancingo, where a friend of Sebastian lives and track him down via Facebook. They find Carlos while he is attending Church. Lydia tells Carlos what happened. Carlos asks his wife, Meredith, to take them into the United States along with a group of visiting missionaries, but she is reluctant.

Chapters 9 - 14

Lydia and Luca are put on the third missionary bus back to the United States. They are stopped at a roadblock, and some boys carrying AR-15s check the vans. Carlos tells them that Lydia is a church counselor and pays the required bribes without incident. Upon reaching Mexico City, Lydia next wants to fly to a city near the northern border. However, she needs Luca's birth certificate for him to fly, which Lydia does not have.

Lydia considers the options. La Bestia is a freight train system used by migrants that is fraught with danger. There are no tickets for this train, since it is technically for cargo. There are fences up to prevent it being boarded when stopped, so it has to be boarded in motion. The alternative of relying on coyotes is risky as well. The last option is walking to the border, a lengthy and arduous journey.

They choose to walk for now, arriving eventually in Huehuetoca at a migrant shelter for rest. Padre Rey, his helper Nestor, and Sister Cecilia run the facility. Lydia and Luca are fed and given a place to sleep. The next morning, the other migrants gossip about a man who was kicked out of the shelter for raping a woman there, with one saying that being assaulted is the price of going north.

Lydia's plan is to keep heading north until the border, to find a coyote to cross the border and then take a bus to Denver, where she has family. They come across two migrant girls, Soledad and Rebeca (15 and 14), who show them how to board La Bestia via overpasses which is still dangerous but less so than the alternative. It works.

Chapters 15 - 16

Lydia recalls her and Sebastian's discussions before the article came out. She had even considered telling Javier beforehand, but Sebastian was worried Javier would see it as him volunteering to act as a PR guy. After, the article was published, Lydia felt it was fair and was hopeful Javier would be okay with it. About a week later, the shooting happened.

Present day, they ride La Bestia, but the girls recommend not riding at night. Instead, they all get off at San Miguel de Allende. The girls help them to find food, and they all sleep outside for the night. The next day, it's back to the tracks. The girls recommend they walk an hour to board the Pacific Route since the others are all controlled by cartels.

The girls explain that they left Honduras when a gang leader (palabrero) took a liking to Soledad, despite her disinterest. She was raped and now is pregnant. When he started asking about her sister Rebeca as well, Soledad knew they needed to leave. They left without informing anyone. They have a cousin, Cesar, in Maryland who has agreed to take them in, and Cesar has paid a coyote $4,000 for each girl to meet them at the border and take them across.

Chapters 17 - 20

They arrive at a migrant shelter in Celaya, where a priest warns everyone to turn back if at all possible. He says the road to the north will only get more dangerous from here on out. Still, the next day they re-board La Bestia. Luca spots the man who got kicked out for assaulting the girl at the first shelter they were at. He furthermore spots the man's tattoo, identifying him as one of the Los Jardineros.

Lydia confronts the man, who knows exactly who she is. He says his name is Lorenzo, and that the word was to bring her in. But he's left the cartel life behind and is fleeing to America. (As they roll through Guadalajara, they are advised to get off since police will inspect the trains at the next stop. They disembark.) Lorenzo informs her that after the article was published, Javier's daughter Marta killed herself after finding out the truth about her father.

Outside Guadalajara, they arrive at another shelter. There, the two girls decide to call their father. However, the woman who picks up informs them that their father was stabbed, in the stomach and in the face, and is at the hospital. A woman the the hospital, Angela, confirms it.

Chapters 21 - 24

Still unsure of Lorenzo, they leave early to get away from him. The next leg of their journey will take them into Sinalo, known for cartel activity and disappearing girls. They board La Bestia, but suddenly immigration officials ("la migra") arrive and they need to run. They try, but are rounded up eventually and taken to a warehouse in Novalato. Soledad and Rebeca are raped.

As Mexican nationals, Lydia and Luca are free to go (with payment), but Luca demands that they save Soledad and Rebeca. They give up the rest of their money that was hidden away to save them. They come across a doctor who wants to help them. Cautiously (they check his ID and he shows pictures of his family), they go with him. He gives them a ride to a motel. That night, Soledad has a miscarriage.

The next morning, the doctor buys them food, sunscreen and sanitary napkins and then drives them to the nearby town of Culiacan. There is no fence guarding La Bestia there, and they are able to board safely with it stopped. But the train stops three hours later and is idled. They wait for three days for the right train to depart again. They meet some migrants, two older men, who are familiar with the route because they've done it eight times in search of work. Three hundred miles from Nogales, where they are to meet the coyote, immigration agents show up again. This time they are able to get away. A local woman allows them to hide in her shed while the agents they search the neighborhood.

Chapters 25 - 27

Back on La Bestia, they start to see trains full of migrant traveling south. They also meet a young asthmatic boy, 10, named Beto. Beto grew up near the landfills in Tijuana and is traveling alone. Beto explains that the southbound travelers are people who were deported from the United States, some after living there for many years. He also explains that it used to be easy to cross the border near Tijuana, but now that area is heavily guarded.

Before long, they arrive at their destination, Nogales. The sisters make contact with the coyote, El Chacal, to make arrangements to meet. The sisters have already paid him, but Lydia needs to find a way to withdraw money from her mother's bank account to pay. The man charges $5,000 for her and $6,000 for Luca, so $11,000 total. Lydia doesn't have the required paperwork, but throws herself at the mercy of the clerk, Paola who has heard of her story on the news. Paola gives her all the money in her mother's account and throws in 500 pesos of her own cash. Beto also pays the $6,000 to cross, and covers the few hundred dollars extra because Lydia is short.

Chapters 28 - 30

El Chacal has them stay at an apartment until departure. Other than the five of them, there are three additional migrants. Two men and a woman. The woman, Marisol, was deported from California and is trying to go back. She had let her visa lapse after the death of her husband, but stayed illegally because of her 15-year-old daughter, a citizen. Lydia, Luca and Marisol go out to find food, but Lydia turn back when she sees some graffiti tagged by Los Jardineros.

Back at the apartment, Lydia discovers that Lorenzo is also traveling with them. Later, five more join them as well. Marisol and another deportee Nicolas talk about ICE. Marisol says that ICE has known about her illegal status for years and she has checked in with them periodically as required, but recently they decided to deport her. Instead of using their discretion to deport criminals and gang members, they are deporting people simply for showing up to their check ins. Soledad calls the hospital and learns her father is dead.

When it is time to depart, Beto has not brought a jacket as instructed and El Chacal kicks him out of the group, but Nicolas offers one of his instead. El Chacal then gives a stern warning that everyone needs to heed what he says or they will die. They have a difficult two day hike ahead of them. Immigration agents show up, but El Chacal pays them off. El Chacal also instructs the group that if they get caught, not to identify him as the coyote. Instead, if they get deported, they will all be deported together and can try again. Without much ceremony, they eventually enter the United States.

Chapters 31 - 32

El Chacal spots some pickup trucks, which turn out to be vigilante border patrol people. They hide until they leave, and then trudge up and down hills in the desert heat, carrying their water and any belongings with them. They make their way to a water station where aid workers try to leave water, but the Border Patrol shows up soon after. They hide until they are gone. By late morning, they finally find a spot to camp, sleep and hide from the sun.

As soon as the sun starts to set again, it's time to head out again. They have eight miles with up to 7,000 ft in elevation change along the way to traverse today. El Chacal explains that they cannot stop for anyone, so if anyone is unable to continue, they will be left behind. He tells them how to find Ruby Road, which is patrolled regularly, which is where they should go since turning themselves in is better than death.

The hike is grueling but goes smoothly until it starts to rain five hours in. Luca develops a blister, which Lydia tries to bandage, as the others leave Luca and Lydia behind. They begin jogging to try to catch up. Through the darkness (since El Chacal does not allow flashlights), they are somehow able to catch up to the group.

Chapters 33 - 35

El Chacal got his nickname from a pup he raised as a boy. Later, he started doing the crossing just for fun, but then started helping others cross until he'd turned it into a business. When borders tightened, the journey became more difficult. And then the cartels moved in, eating away at profits. El Chacal wants to retire soon.

One of the migrants, Ricardo, nearly gets carried away in a flash flood. He survives, but his leg is broken. His godfather stays with him, and they plan to head to the Ruby Road, roughly a mile away, to turn themselves in when he's up to it. The rest of the group makes it to camp, where they sleep in a cave. When Rebeca steps out to go to the bathroom, Lorenzo attacks her, but El Chacal stops him, pointing a gun at him. When El Chacal lowers the gun, Soledad disarms him and shoots Lorenzo.

They break camp in case anyone heard the shot. Before they leave, Lydia finds Lorenzo's cell phone. She checks it and to her horror, Lorenzo has been reporting back to Javier this whole time. Lydia calls him on the phone, demanding to be left alone and telling him about Lorenzo's death. Javier claims he never wanted to hurt her, but Lydia doesn't listen and tosses the cell phone away.

Chapter 36

In the final leg of their journey, Beto is struggling due to his asthma, until he finally is unable to breathe. Despite their efforts, Beto dies. Later that day, the migrants finally arrive at camp, where two men with two RVs are waiting for them. They need to wait until Border Patrol leaves to depart. At 5:15 PM, it's finally time. They hide in the RV's benches, and the drivers begin to drive.

Epilogue

About a month later, Lydia now has a job cleaning houses. She and Luca live with Soledad and Rebeca at their cousin Cesar's place. The girls are enrolled in school. Lydia's teacher suggests signing Luca up for a geography bee, but later informs her he's not eligible to win because he's undocumented. Sympathetically, the teacher suggests that she contact an immigration attorney.

See American Dirt on Amazon.

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