Saturday, March 07, 2020

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins (Reviewed and Defended)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is so controversial a book these days that it is impossible to review the novel without acknowledging the supposed outrage associated with it. That means I will be doing both of those things in some detail here, but here’s the condensed version just in case you don’t want to read any further:

·      American Dirt is a very fine chase/thriller novel about a Mexican mother and son running for their lives and hoping to find safety and a new life in the United States.

·      The criticism about the author’s writing style is totally misplaced.

·      The criticism about the author’s right to tell “the story” of Mexican migrants wanting to cross illegally the border into the United States, the whole “cultural appropriation” argument, is dubious at best.

·      That some of the characters do not strike the book’s shrillest critic as being “credible Mexicans” is ludicrous.

·      American Dirt is nothing more than a convenient target for a group of Mexican and Mexican American authors to use to make the proper case that it is harder for people of color to break into print than it is for others.

·      Perhaps, the resentment associated with all of this is as much about the money that Jeanine Cummins stands to make from American Dirt as it is about anything else.

·      Even if the book is not a perfect representation of a “credible Mexican,” I am better for having read it, not worse.

So let’s start with the book.

Lydia Quixano Pérez lives with her son and husband in Acapulco where she owns and runs a small bookstore. Lydia’s husband is a newspaper writer who has taken an interest in the increased drug cartel activity in their city, especially in the leader of the newest cartel to hit town. Their son, Luca, is a bright eight-year-old who loves to spend time with his mother in the bookstore.

The bookstore is Lydia’s passion in life, and even though the store is not exactly thriving, she enjoys getting the right books into the hands of the right readers. So one day when a new customer brings a number of books to the cash register, including two of Lydia’s all-time favorites, she cannot resist befriending him. By the time that Lydia figures out that Javier, her new friend, is the very cartel kingpin being investigated by her husband, the two have developed a solid friendship that makes it difficult for her to believe what her husband tells her about him. But when a few weeks later the newspaper reveals Javier’s true identity in a detailed exposé, the cartel jefe decides to take his revenge by wiping out the journalist’s entire family during a family celebration. Now, Lydia and Luca are running for their lives.

What follows is a thrilling race to the U.S. border during which Lydia and Luca struggle  to stay one step ahead of Javier and his men. Along the way, Lydia befriends a group of young migrants who are trying to cross the border for reasons of their own, and she soon realizes that they all have a better chance of survival if they stick together than if they travel as individuals. Lydia’s new family includes two beautiful fourteen and fifteen-year-old Guatemalan sisters forced to flee a drug dealer who wants to claim them as his own and a young Mexican boy who has spent his whole life as a garbage dump scavenger. Over time, the five of them become so dependent on each other that it is sometimes hard to tell exactly who is taking care of whom.

Jeanine Cummins
Some have claimed that the character of Lydia, an upper middle class Mexican, is the only kind of migrant that Jeanine Cummins and her white readers are capable of identifying with long enough to write or read about. Those critics miss the point that Cummins is not trying to represent Lydia and Luca to be anything remotely like the typical migrant. On page 94 of the book, Cummins addresses Lydia’s own shock at the realization that she is now a “migrant”:

            “…like a thunderclap, Lydia understands that it’s not a disguise at all. She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs. All her life, she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”

No, Cummins is not representing Lydia as a “typical” migrant, and she makes sure that her “white readers” get that point. Then she begins to surround Lydia and Luca with the more typical migrants who are following the same path to the U.S. And guess what, critics? We got it. And we sympathized with those migrants in the story every bit as much as we pulled for Lydia and Luca to make it.

And then there’s this on page 166, a passage during which one of the Guatemalan sisters and Luca are talking:

            “…he (Luca) starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond.”

Or this from page 212:

            “Lydia is constantly reminded that her education has no purchase here, that she has no access to the kind of information that has real currency on this journey. Among migrants, everyone knows more than she does. How do you find a coyote, make sure he’s reputable, pay for your crossing, all without getting ripped off?”

But it is this whole thing about “cultural appropriation” that I fail to comprehend. No, Jeanine Cummins is not Mexican, but she is something like one-quarter Puerto Rican, and she married an illegal immigrant in 2005. She knows what it’s like to be stopped by authorities and not have the right paperwork on hand to ensure that your husband is not about to be deported. And she spent four years researching and writing about the migrant experience.

So what if she is not perfect in her use of Mexican slang or in her description of everyday life in Mexico? Would I, a white reader, be more understanding of the dangers migrants are willing to face today and why they are willing to do so if Cummins had used a more correct word here or there? Would the book’s critics prefer that I not read American Dirt at all and remain blissfully ignorant of (and less sympathetic about) the dangers faced by the migrants headed our way?

If so, they confirm my theory that their criticism is based more on jealousy and money than it is about “cultural appropriation.”

And even before the contrived controversy, the “Author’s Note” (I know this is long) had this to say:

            “…the final, most significant factor that influenced my decision to tackle the subject. It took me four years to research and write this novel, so I began long before talk about migrant caravans and building a wall entered the national zeitgeist. But even then I was frustrated by the tenor of the public discourse surrounding immigration in this country. The conversation always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns. I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago – and it has gotten exponentially worse since then – were characterized within that public discourse. At worse, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”


“So I hoped to present one of those unique personal stories – a work of fiction – as a way to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear. And I so doing, I hope to create a pause where the reader may begin to individuate. When we see migrants on the news, we may remember: these people are people.”


“And yet, when I decided to write this book, I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have. I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then, I thought, ‘If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, whey not be a bridge.’ So I began.”

Cummins even sought the opinion of prominent members of the Latino community, such as Norma Iglesias Prieto, who told her, “Jeanine. We need as many voices as we can get, telling this story.” And both Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez wrote glowing blurbs for the book’s back cover…along with Stephen King, Don Winslow, Ann Patchett, John Grisham and Kristin Hannah.

Finally, that brings us to Oprah Winfrey, who chose American Dirt as one of the books to be highlighted in the 2020 version of “Oprah’s Book Club.” To her credit, Oprah has not succumbed to the pressure to apologize for and change her selection. But anyone who has seen the televised version of the book club (on Apple TV) that supposedly features American Dirt is going to have a lesser opinion of Oprah’s courage. The book is barely mentioned, the author is barely allowed to speak. Instead, three or four migrants are allowed to tell their personal stories in great detail, including video footage taken on location. Of the approximately thirty-nine minutes the program lasted, I would estimate that Cummins spoke for less than two of them – and that was mostly in response to Oprah’s leading question about Cummins having now learned something she hadn’t known before writing the book.

Oprah Winfrey is, as it turns out, a politically correct coward.

Bottom Line: I’m happy to have read the book because I did, in fact, learn more about things I didn’t really understand before reading American Dirt. I don’t care at all that a few details may be wrong or distorted. That did not change the message I received from the novel, and it had no impact on my enjoyment or understanding of it at all. Don’t let the politically correct robots out there intimidate you and decide what you can and cannot read. Read American Dirt and decide for yourself


Edit of Monday, March 9, 2020:

I have just learned about a second segment of Oprah's Book Club during which Jeanine Cummins is interviewed for about 18 minutes before some of her critics are brought on stage to join the conversation. Please see that post for more detail.

I decided not to edit this original post because it would, in my opinion, be unfair of me to do so.

12 comments:

  1. Well written Sam and happy you enjoyed reading this instead of listening to all the naysayers.

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    1. Thanks, Diane. I hope everyone follows suit because American Dirt is a book that will appeal to male and female readers alike, I think. It's a thriller that delves pretty deeply into all of its characters.

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  2. Love this post! I think the whole controversy about this book is ridiculous and totally based on jealousy, especially on the part of the one most vocal voice out there ( no names but I’m sure you know who this is). I feel this book added much to my understanding of the migrant experience and I’m glad I read it.

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    1. Same here, Brenda. It would be a real shame if this one didn't find the readership it deserves because a handful of loudmouths decided it didn't mean their purity test standards. I had a response on Twitter that said my comments were "maddening." I feel the same about the whole trumped up controversy.

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  3. Excellent review, Sam, very well thought out and expressed. Your last paragraph says it all I think.

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    1. Thanks, Cath. You knew this was coming, didn't you? :-)

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  4. Good for you, Sam. The important thing is that regardless of the hype, many readers have chosen to decide for themselves about the book.

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    1. I'm starting to wonder if, ultimately, the book will actually sell better because of the hype. That noise brought out the anti-censorship people in droves, and I think that's helping to move copies...lots of them.

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  5. Okay, you've sold me. I'm adding this one to my TBR list. :)

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  6. Very thoughtful commentary, thank you for sharing your experience of the book.

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    1. Thanks for that. I appreciate anyone who has the patience to read something this long, but it's a problem that really bothers me.

      Now I"m getting wind of an author by the name of Harris who claims the book is largely copied from one he wrote in 2016. I'm trying to get hold of a copy of his book next.

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