American Dirt is a gripping and empathetic story of an immigrant mother and son and their struggle to flee cartel violence and settle in America. It was written, the author says in the epilogue, to humanize the immigrants from south of the border who so many Americans fail to recognize as fellow human beings.
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.