September Book Review: 'American Dirt' by Jeanine Cummins

Sep 16, 2020

Credit Flatiron Books

 

 

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings, hailed as “‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for our times,” was Oprah's Book Club selection in January. By March there was so much controversy the book tour was canceled.

 

Chapter one: “One of the very first bullets comes in from the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn't understand immediately that it is a bullet at all, and it's only luck it doesn't strike him between the eyes.”

 

From that first sentence, we shadow 8 year-old Luca and his mother Lydia as they undertake a dangerous escape from Mexico to the United States.

 

Oprah selected this book because it is a well-told, heart-wrenching, thriller about a timely subject. It puts names and faces on these unknown people who try to reach American dirt. It opened her eyes and changed her thinking. Most readers will feel the same.

 

We witness the brutal massacre which forces Lydia and Luca to flee, but also learn the stories of other Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants they meet along the way. We learn about the unofficial, support system that exists for immigrants making this pilgrimage. We learn a lot.

 

So what's the controversy?

 

Author Jeanine Cummings, began researching this novel in 2013, long before Trump's border cages and family separations hit the news cycle. She expressed concern that as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican she had no business telling this story. However, the issues were important to her and when advised every voice was needed to tell these stories, she felt compelled, even if unqualified, to continue. 

 

Oprah announced the selection and all hell broke loose. The publishing company, author and Oprah were flooded with comments, many of them negative and most related to a non-Mexican author telling the story. 

 

Not one to ignore controversy, Oprah expanded the Book Club meeting into a 2 part series filmed at the border and aired on AppleTV+. It gives a platform to the author, vocal Latinx critics of the book, a grassroots campaign for greater Latino inclusion in the U.S. publishing industry, scholars and volunteers specializing in migrant trauma, migrant mothers, and people living in America under DACA. 

 

Oprah opened the discussion by saying, “I fundamentally, fundamentally believe in the right of anyone to use their imagination and their skills to tell stories and to empathize with another story.” When it was pointed out that since 1996 she'd picked zero books written by Mexican-Americans, Oprah promised to pay more attention in the future. 

 

Symbolically, the book cover features white birds on a sky blue background, similar to traditional Mexican tile patterns, but these lovely birds are surrounded by barbed wire. “American Dirt” can be found at our local libraries.