I did not like this book.
I remember the weird Oprah controversy from last year, but honestly, didn’t pay too much attention to it while it was going on. And then my book club chose it for the summer selection. Most people loved it — regardless of the controversial story of Jeanine Cummins — but I couldn’t really get past her whole story and as I continued reading (well, listening), I got more and more annoyed with her and the story.
A quick overview of the Oprah thing: American Dirt was selected for Oprah’s book club, and after some original praise and good reviews, quickly started to be criticized for the fact that Cummins was a white trying to write about the plight of the Mexican migrant. Some Latinx authors and reviewers went so far as to call this book a “Mexican torture porn melodrama.” Lantix writers were furious that this book was getting so much attention and that it was written by a white woman, while writers from Mexico had been writing similar stories for years, and getting zero attention or publicity. Eventually, all of the criticism led to some interesting changes in the publishing world, hopefully leading to greater representation from some Latinx writers.
American Dirt is the story of Lydia, who owns a bookstore in Acapulco, and strikes up an intense friendship — which is almost love — with an older customer named Javier. She and Javier bond over books and poems, they talk about their families, they drink coffee and eat chocolate. They quickly become the most important person in each other’s lives, even though both are married and have a child.
Lydia’s husband, Sebastian, is a journalist who is focused on taking down the leaders of the horrific cartels in Acapulco, including the newest and worst, Los Jardineros.
Guess who is the ruthless and vicious head of Los Jardineros?
Yeah, so, the book starts out with Javier’s henchmen crashing a Quincinera for Lydia’s niece and slaughtering 15 members of her family, including Sebastian. Only Lydia and her son Luca survive, as they hid in the shower when the bullets started flying. (This isn’t a spoiler, it happens on the first page of the book.)
The rest of the story is flashbacks to Lydia and Javier’s time together mixed with Lydia and Luca’s attempt to make it across the border to the US.
Yes, some of the factual information was interesting. I had no idea that so many migrants would risk their lives by chasing freight trains and riding them as far north as they could. I didn’t know (although I could have guessed) how many robberies, rapes, and kidnappings occur on the route to the US. I appreciate the plight of these migrants, who are willing to do anything in order to have a potentially better life. I just hated how Janine Cummins chose to write about it.
Lydia should have been a sympathetic character. She literally lost everything at the hand of someone she loved. But I couldn’t stand her. As she and Luca (and the friends they made on their journey) hit problem after problem, I got so frustrated with her and with the never-ending awfulness of their journey.
SPOILERS: The part I hated the most was near the end when Lydia called Javier from Arizona, as they were hiking to safety with their Coyote. It just seemed like it was from another story about another woman. Suddenly so tough and full of daring rage, I didn’t buy the way that Lydia spoke to Javier at all.
I’m annoyed that I read this. I love my book club friends, but I’m going to hold this pick against them for a long time to come.