American Dirt (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel Hardcover – January 21, 2020
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“American Dirt just gutted me, and I didn’t just read this book―I inhabited it….Everything about this book was so extraordinary. It’s suspenseful, the language is beautiful, and the story really opened my heart. I highly recommend it, and you will not want to put it down. It is just a magnificent novel.”
“American Dirt is a literary novel with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale. Its most profound achievement, though, is something I never could’ve been told…American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it’s like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment.”
―Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“This tense, illuminating novel takes off like a rocket…”
―People (Book of the Week)
“This novel is a heart-stopping story of survival, danger, and love…”
―The New York Times
“I devoured the novel in a dry-eyed adrenaline rush….A profoundly moving reading experience.”
―The Washington Post
“A heart-pounding, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-till-3 a.m., adrenaline-pumping story…that examines, with sensitivity, care, and complexity of thought, immense, soul-obliterating trauma and its aftermath.”
―Los Angeles Times
“The story is masterfully composed of timeless elements: the nightmare logic of grief, the value of human kindness, the power of love to drive us to do the unimaginable…Cummins proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy.”
“Destined to be a classic.”
“Heartfelt and hopeful, American Dirt is a novel for our times. Thrilling, epic, and unforgettable….”
“Stunning…remarkable….A novel as of the zeitgeist as any, American Dirt is also an account of love on the run that will never lose steam.”
“This one will tug at your heartstrings.”
“The very best novel I’ve read about immigrants (and the best novel I’ve read over the past year)….American Dirt is being compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and the comparison is apt.”
―San Francisco Chronicle
"As literature, American Dirt is modern realism at its finest: a tale of moral challenge in the spirit of Theodore Dreiser wrapped inside a big-hearted social epic like The Grapes of Wrath. American Dirt is going to be the defining book of 2020.”
―New York Journal of Books
“I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt. Its plot is tight, smart, and unpredictable. Its message is important and timely, but not political. Its characters are violent, compassionate, sadistic, fragile, and heroic. It is rich in authenticity. Its journey is a testament to the power of fear and hope and belief that there are more good people than bad.”
“American Dirt is both a moral compass and a riveting read. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.”
―Ann Patchett, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Dutch House and Commonwealth
“Why do we read fiction? By immersing ourselves in the lives of fictional characters we gain emotional depth, breadth, and empathy. We become more human. I have never felt more changed―or challenged―by a book than I have by American Dirt. It’s truly a revelation.”
―Elin Hilderbrand, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Summer of ’69
“Relevant, powerful, extraordinary. It is a remarkable combination of joy and terror, infused always with the restorative power of a mother's love and the endless human capacity for hope. I hope everyone reads it and is as moved by it as I was.”
―Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone
“Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment. Jeanine Cummins makes us all LIVE and BREATHE the refugee story.”
―Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies
“American Dirt is an extraordinary piece of work, a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it. The prose is immaculate, and the story never lets up. This book will be an important voice in the discussion about immigration and los migrantes; it certainly puts the lie to the idea that we are being besieged by ‘bad hombres.’ On a micro scale―the story scale, where I like to live―it’s one hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy. It’s marvelous.”
“From its heart-stopping first sentence to its heart-shattering last, Cummins’s story of immigrants is just what we need now. Gritty yet sensitive, realistic yet hopeful, grand and granular, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a Grapes of Wrathfor our times.”
―Don Winslow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Border
“The most gripping thriller you’ll read this side of Marathon Man. This thing goes harder than a Lee Child novel and the writing sings. Deserves to be a Gone Girl-level hit.”
―Joe Hill, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman and Heart-Shaped Box
“Jeanine Cummins writes with such grace, compassion, and precision that I could not stop reading.”
―Erika Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
“This is a book that’s both hard to read and hard to put down and will no doubt spark a lot of conversation.”
“Time to sink into American Dirt.”
“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
―Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“American Dirt is an urgent, blistering, unforgettable book. In her portrayal of Lydia and Luca, a mother and son forced to leave their Mexican home, Jeanine Cummins has given face to migrants everywhere who flee violence and near-certain death in search of only one thing: a chance at life. Beautifully written, thrilling in its propulsive force, American Dirt is a new American classic.”
―Tara Conklin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Last Romantics
“The story of the migrant is the story of our times, and Jeanine Cummins is a worthy chronicler. At once intimate and epic, American Dirt is an exhilarating and beautiful book about parental love and human hope.”
―Rumaan Alam, author of That Kind of Mother and Rich and Pretty
“Urgent and unforgettable, American Dirt leaps the borders of the page and demands attention, especially now.”
―Sarah Blake, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Postmistress and The Guest Book
“A powerful, moving, and unforgettable read.”
―Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us
“This tough, powerful novel is an eye opener. It made me understand better why someone would give up the home they know and love to survive, and the grit required to cross that border. It is essential reading for our time.”
―Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl With a Pearl Earring
“This extraordinary novel about unbreakable determination will move the reader to the core.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lydia and Luca are utterly believable characters, and their breathtaking journey moves with the velocity and power of one of those freight trains. Intensely suspenseful and deeply humane, this novel makes migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border indelibly individual.”
―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“American Dirt may be the don’t-miss book of 2020.”
―Booklist (starred review)
“Cummins is a skilled and empathetic chronicler of trauma and its aftermath…American Dirt is an immersive story, fueled by the elemental love of a mother for her son.”
―Minnesota Star Tribune
“This gripping story of a mother and son on Mexico’s migrant trail combines humane intentions with propulsive, action-movie execution.”
“This is a book everyone should read.”
―Woman & Home
“This powerful new novel promises readers a ride they’ll never forget.”
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Problem 1: The Author. Let me start with the obvious: Cummins has never lived even within five hundred miles of Mexico or the border. In fact, until very recently, she didn't lay claim to the Latinx heritage that comes to her through a Puerto Rican grandmother. Just five years ago, she was calling herself white. Latina or no, Cummins certainly isn't Mexican or Chicana. That's a problem.
If you don't know this, Mexican writers are horribly underpaid. Women writers in Mexico, more so. And Chicanx authors suffer marginalization in the US market. As a Mexican American writer, I have seen my Chicana and Mexicana colleagues struggle to get their stories told, to get their manuscripts into the hands of agents and past the publishing industry's gatekeepers.
While I have nothing against Jeanine's (or anyone else's) writing a book about the plight of Mexican women and immigrants (especially if they do their homework and don't exoticize our culture), I am deeply bothered that this non-#OwnVoices novel has been anointed the book about the issue for 2020 (with a seven-figure advance, no less) with glowing reviews from major newspapers and the support of big names in US publishing.
Such reception is especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money). There's been strong pushback, especially Myriam Gurba's masterful take-down of the book (that magazines refused to publish) and Parul Sehgal's examination of how the book "flounders and fails."
Author Daniel Peña characterizes the book in stark terms: "lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair."
US readers would be MUCH better off diving into one of the many books on immigration by ACTUAL Chicanx and Mexican writers that already exist. I mean, Cummins sure did:
"My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey is magnificent. So is The Beast by the Salvadoran writer Óscar Martínez." (from her Shelf Awareness interview)
Yet even after reading EXISTING works, Jeanine Cummins STILL felt SHE needed to write about the plight of Mexican immigrants. Ostensibly, however, she was conflicted and nervous. On the one hand, she admits to Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: "I don't know if I'm the right person to tell this story." And in the afterword of her book, she worries that "privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths," wishing that someone "slightly browner than [her] would write it."
But on the other hand … she still wrote it. After talking to various Mexicans on the border, this was her response: "Every single person I met made me more and more determined to write this book." Cummins was concerned, she claims, that people at the border were being depicted as a "brown, faceless mass." She wanted to give them a face. To be their white savior.
Of course, she conveniently forgot about the very #OwnVoices books she had mined for ideas and cultural texture.
In the midst of this literary amnesia, she decided to make millions off the pain and struggle of women from a completely different culture.
Why does her identity even matter? Because she gets nearly everything wrong as a result.
Problem 2: The Content
For example, Cummins screws up Spanish egregiously (especially nuances in Mexican Spanish). First, when depicting Spanish-language dialogue as English, she sprinkles it with Spanish words, which is ridiculous ("Hola, abuela" is just "Hello, Grandma," in English, not "Hello, Abuela," as Cummins prefers). Even if we accept this as poetic licence to add cultural texture, she does it poorly, never using Mexican Spanish terms, just sterile, standard ones. If you're going to add spice, make it chile, Jeanine.
Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor. The Spanish is … not idiomatic at all.
Cultural references are often missed, and Lydia Quixano Pérez (what a name, huh) is ignorant of things that any Mexican knows. For example, learning a cartel leader is called "La Lechuza" (which Cummins incorrectly glosses as "the Owl") Lydia laughs. Owls aren't scary, she insists.
Now, a "lechuza" is a screech owl. They have been feared throughout Mexico for literally THOUSANDS OF YEARS, considered harbingers of death, witches in disguise. Lydia's reaction is that of the White readers, not actual Mexicans. And this is just one of literally dozens of examples.
People are stereotypes in this novel, participating in stereotypical activities (quinceañeras, for example). They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct. Lydia and Luca - despite having money - escape to the precious freedom of the US aboard La Bestia (that dangerous, crime-infested train) because of COURSE they do. But they don't suffer the maiming, abuse, theft, and rape so common on that gang-controlled artery to the border. It's all very Hollywood, very best-selling thriller.
And the characters. Gah. I am close friends with people from all social classes in Mexico, including light-skinned, middle-class, book-loving women like the protagonist ostensibly is. But none of the peculiarities of those lives and experiences make their way into this novel. Instead, Lydia and Luca feel like a White US mother and her son, with nominally Mexican names slapped on, sprinkled with a bit of lime and salt. They could easily appear in a Gillian Flynn novel with little adjustment at all. Furthermore, Cummins clearly wants us to be startled at how "erudite" and "elegant" some of the males are. "OMG! Really?" I imagine some US reader gasping. "In Mexico? Aren't all men uncouth swarthy beasts?"
And frankly, I've barely scratched the surface here. Setting aside the melodramatic plot and mediocre writing, there is so much more to say, especially about how this book (which the editor characterizes as "a portrait of a nation and a people under siege") does little to explore the complicity of the US in the violence wracking Mexico. In avoiding politics, Cummins ends up implicitly blaming the victim.
Let me be clear: because American Dirt contains multiple inaccuracies and distortions, the White US readership in particular will come away with a stylized understanding of the issues from a melodramatic bit of literary pulp that frankly appears to have been drafted with their tastes in mind (rather than the authentic voices of Mexicanas and Chicanas).
Ah, and there's the rub. White folks and other non-Mexican Americans in the US: you CANNOT judge for yourselves whether American Dirt is authentic. You're going to have to trust Mexicans and Chicanx folks. I know that runs counter to the upbringing of so many. I know it defies our national discourse.
Pero ni modo. That's too bad.
At a time when Mexico and the Mexican American community are reviled in this country as they haven't been in decades, to elevate this inauthentic book written by someone outside our community is to slap our collective face.
**p.s.** When I went to review this book I was given an error message that said there were too many suspect reviews and therefore only confirmed purchasers could review the book...and I bought the book from Amazon! I found a back door to getting in and putting a review up, but it took me about 20 mins, maybe thirty to jump through all the hoops to get it done. Had I been less invested I would have given up. Take whatever meaning you want from this info.
One might question whether creating unbelievable situations and rather saintly characters is the best way to do this, but the book seems more or less effective in its stated purpose. For example, the head of the local drug cartel is, in American Dirt, a poet and literary connoisseur who befriends the protagonist before her husband publishes an expose on him and he orders their execution. The mother does not even have a tinge of darkness in her, despite having seen the brutal butchering of her entire family.
Plot conceits like these are okay in a book that’s mainly meant to be a page-turner but the book is so overhyped that I was expecting to read a classic. The cover boasts this is a Grapes of Wrath for our generation, for goodness sakes.
As long as your expectations are for a good page-turner with noble intentions you will not be disappointed. But melodramatic plot twists, one-dimensional characters and a lack of any depth or symbolism beyond the bare accounting of an immigrant’s journey do not make a novel a masterpiece no matter how importantly its message may be needed today. A good book but by no means a literary classic.
Top international reviews
At times it had my heart racing in fear.
It moved me to tears and it is achingly poignant.
The writing is stunning and it will stay with me.
This is creative writing at its best.
I hear the criticisms that Cummins is not Mexican etc
But, do you know what, you don’t need to be a serial killer or forensic profiler to write a good crime novel.
I have read some books written from experience and they have felt like an excuse to get on a soap box. They have not affected me like American Dirt.
This book opened my mind and touched my heart.
I applaud Jeanine Cummins and I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
I listened to it and the narrator is superb.
‘ Journey” of the main two characters was , I felt, predictable, repetitive and not even very well written. I just couldn’t really care about any of the characters . There were moments of excitement and it’s by no means a terrible read but , on this occasion I think all the wild praise that’s it’s a `’ modern classic” has resulted in a major disappointment.
The story is chilling, tense and well written as it charts their incredibly dangerous journey, clinging to the top of goods trains, getting robbed and ultimately paying a coyote. The characters are good though I feel more depth to Luca and in the sisters Soledad and Rebecca from Honduras who they travel with. There’s a sense of detachment in Lydia which is appropriate as it’s her way of surviving the trauma of the murders and the dangers of the journey. Her care for all three children is admirable. The younger characters have to grow up quickly in order to survive and they have to endure things no one should. I love Luca’s encyclopaedic knowledge of geography which is suggestive of some form of autism possibly with savant abilities?? There are some vivid descriptions of the dangers and the landscapes and places they travel through. They meet badness for sure but they also meet a lot of kindness and people who are prepared to help. There are several moments when your heart is in your mouth. The ending is optimistic although there’s awareness of a long road ahead for psychological recovery. My only negative is that some sections on the journey are very long especially in the second half and I didn’t engage as well.
Overall, view it as a work of fiction and a story of survival and it’s a work of merit.
A middle class , bookshop owning young mother, married to an investigative journalists is living a pleasant , normal life. This life changes beyond recognition when her husband, mother and 14 more family members are slaughtered by an all powerful criminal cartel.. She and her young son escape and she knows that they must run and keep running until they feel safe. They flee Acapulco and head north for the USA.
She knows that they will be followed and that they can trust no one. The drugs running cartel reaches into police, government, immigration and all branches of commerce. To avoid any record of their escape they ride the rails over 2000 miles north . Their journey is perilous and the chances of making it slim.
This is a well researched book illustrating the almost impossible odds the imegrants face when travelling from South American/Mexican poverty and violence for " a better life". They will be robbed, they may be raped, assaulted, abused, held to randsome,or enslaved. Boarding and travelling illegally on the roof of railway wagons is dangerous. Many are killed or crippled.and those that make it are often, after a nightmare journey lasting months, caught and sent back when the land of plenty is within touching distance.
Lydia and 8 year old Luca had a special reason , but this book left me pondering , how bad must the imegrants' lives be in their own countries to risk all those horrors for a better future. It made me focus with sympathy on the plight of such desperate people.
Thank you Jeanine Cummings for a wonderful, thought provoking novel.
It's the story of a mother and son who flee from Acapulco and attempt to cross the US border, following the deaths of 16 family members in a revenge massacre (it's worth looking at a map to get an appreciation of the scale of the "adventure").
Extensively researched, the author provides jaw-dropping insights into the plight of migrants from Mexico and neighbouring central American countries undertaking the hazardous journey to and across the US border and their subsequent exposure to deportation.
There are vivid descriptions of the perils of travelling by freight train (in the absence of a functioning passenger rail service). The kindness of individuals and of relief agencies is contrasted with the fear of being harshly treated by corrupt law officers.
Throughout the book the sense of foreboding is pervasive. The migrants know odds are stacked against them but the terrors of staying put drive them on.
At the individual level you are drawn into the fears and hopes of the main characters and those they befriend. In the overall context the depressing thing is that there appears no answer to the underlying forces that lead the migrants to put their lives on the line..
As I am neither from the States nor from Mexico I found it difficult to judge how accurate it really is. As the author isn't Mexican, or Centeal American I doubt that, even with a lot of good research, the story can really be an authentic one.
I would love to read an account of someone who has actually made that journey and gone through these horrors.
If the person writing that review had read the authors summary of why she wrote this book, it would be clear that they are more than qualified. Read what you criticise at least !!!
This is a book the understands passion, grief, trauma and group spirit. There is no romantic ideas here. This is raw human emotion and spirit. The journey is stress after stress and leaves you hanging page after page.
For those of us who have lost to
Violent death, regular death, accidents, the Author captures those feelings. And gives hope in small ways that reflect how we deal with this in real life.
The epilogue having been through the stress of the book is a marked moment in closure.
I think this is an excellent story of trauma in real life and our amazing ability to not only cope but triumph against all the issues we face in life.
Recommend this book wholeheartedly.
Peter Bletchley wrote jaws and he wasn't a shark! This author highlighted the terrible problems in South America in such a human story that is heart breaking dramatic and really quite stunning .