Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt is a gripping novel about a woman and her son who have to flee Mexico and migrate to the US in order to escape a violent drug cartel. It’s a sympathetic and suspenseful take on one of today’s biggest political topics – illegal border crossings.

Lydia and her husband, Sebastian, and son, Luca, live in Acapulco, which was a popular tourist spot but is sliding into ruin due to drug cartel violence. Lydia owns a book store and Sebastian is a journalist who often reports on the cartels, a very risky activity.

Lydia unknowingly befriends the head of a cartel, Javier, when he shops at her store. Javier visits her store often, where the two have long, deep conversations and become very close friends. He seems to have fallen in love with her and calls her “Queen of My Soul.” Lydia is devastated when she finds out who he really is, but doesn’t break off the relationship – she’s just more emotionally distant with Javier.

Then, Sebastian writes an in-depth article about Javier that changes everything. There’s an unexpected consequence that causes Javier to lash out violently, and suddenly Lydia and Luca find themselves on the run. What follows is a suspenseful journey to American dirt.

Lydia and Luca literally just have the clothes on their backs and some money Lydia is able to scrape up. It’s soon obvious that the cartel is hot on their trail and this adds suspense throughout their flight from Mexico. What Lydia and Luca encounter along the way is harrowing – violent cartels unconfined by laws, preyed-upon migrants, desperate rides on top of trains, and dangerous, coyote-led desert border crossings, to name a few. On top of this, Lydia and Luca are grieving as they endure these hardships.

There are also some elements of goodness – fellow migrants and people that generously help them along the way. The author balanced the bad and good really well.

This is such a good book. The character development is nuanced and so well done. Luca was a particularly appealing character, a vulnerable little boy with a wise old soul. Lydia’s strength, grief, and love for Luca were palpable. And the author managed to make Javier both sympathetic and repellant.

The way the story was woven together – the present and the past – was skillful. The story opens with a shocking scene and it’s slowly revealed, through flashbacks, how this came to be.

And the plot is taut and riveting. There’s a lot of suspense and emotion baked into this story and although I believe people should obey our immigration laws, I was rooting for Lydia and Luca to make it to safety in the US.

I avoided this book for a while because of the mind-numbing controversy surrounding it. You might recall when Oprah added it to her book club in January of this year it ignited some Twitter outrage. There seem to be several points of contention, the worst of which is “how dare a white woman tell a brown story.” (identity politics at its worst!) But there are also charges of exploitation, stereotypes, and inaccuracies (of which I haven’t seen any details). And probably the most interesting complaint is that the publishing industry christened this as “the book that will change hearts and minds about illegal immigration.” The publisher gave the author a rare seven figure advance and she also quickly sold the movie rights. So there was a lot of hype but, according to the critics, the target audience is people who are already on the side of migrants. Sounds like the publisher’s marketing misfired.

To be clear, this isn’t fine literature and it’s not the great American novel or a story that “will inspire important conversations.” It’s a really good thriller and that’s how the publisher should have positioned it.

Thanks, George, for recommending American Dirt. I wholeheartedly give it a thumbs up.

Have you read American Dirt? What did you think?

7 thoughts on “Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

  1. So glad you liked it. The controversy was unknown to me when I started reading this book (not a lot of news makes it under my rock) but I became incensed that this topic by a white woman became controversial. Really? I enjoyed the book precisely because it was not a political statement! I kept expecting the novel to take a turn politically that would disturb me but it never did. Cummins expertly threaded the needle and perhaps this is what disturbed many about this book? Also, all of her characters were deeply personal, not just faces or names. Portraying the “coyote” as someone who actually had compassion was a nice change. I was a big fan of this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also really enjoyed this book and was unaware of the controversy until after I read it. I also read “The Crooked Branch” by Cummins which was set in part in Ireland during the potato famine– and she’s not even Irish! Where’s the outrage?? ( As an aside, her husband actually is Irish.) I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and was glad to see good and bad portrayed among them. The border and immigration is such a complex issue and this book doesn’t pretend to have answers. But it certainly evokes a great deal of empathy and compassion for people who are looking for a better life for themselves and their families and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to achieve that. Great read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad you reviewed this! I too avoided it because of the controversy, but I’d been intrigued. Thanks for writing such a nuanced review. I’m adding it to my birthday list!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As others have said, I also avoided the book because of the controversy. Then I started thinking about all of the books I have read by people writing about a culture or a country not their own. It never bothered me before and so why should it bother me just because cancel culture tells me it should. Your review also dispelled my fear that it was another preachy, political statement disguised as a novel. It has been added to my list. You have such great reviews and aren’t afraid to criticize a book when it is due so I believe your reviews. This one sounds like a winner to me.
    One of your prior book choices – News of the World – comes out in movie theaters this month. I loved that book, but not heading to movie theaters in this pandemic.. Hope it quickly makes it to TV or streaming!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Deb! Thanks so much for your kind words! I hope you like this one and I’m curious to hear your feedback. “Preachy” books turn me off, too, but I never got that vibe from American Dirt. I had no idea News of the World was being made into a movie. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the info!


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