Plot: Lydia is a Mexican woman living in Acapulco with her husband and son. She runs a bookstore and her husband works as a journalist sounding the alarm on the growing danger of cartels. An article about a new leader of a cartel results in a snowball effect that leaves 16 members of Lydia’s family dead, brutally murdered, and Lydia and her son Luca alive only by sheer luck. So they pack a bag, and they run. And run. And run.
This is a hard book to review because I simultaneously see its value and also some of the concerns raised by its opponents. So let’s start with the concerns, because if these resonate with you, nothing inside the cover is going to sway you. First is the issue of Cummins, who explicitly identified as a white woman who had no personal connection to the issues faced by people of colour right up until it was time to promote this book, where she pulled a Puerto Rican grandmother, seemingly out of thin air, as a way of giving herself credibility in writing on the topic of Latinx migrants. Then there is the issue of the cover of the book, which depicts birds trapped behind barbed wire, which Cummins thought would be a lovely pedicure. Yikes. The book also galvanized Latinx authors who have either published or tried to publish stories about Latinx people and about the migrant crisis, only to have doors slammed in their faces or miniscule advances and limited run releases, while Cummins’ book was the subject of a bidding war and was selected for Oprah’s book club. That, in effect, beyond the question of who gets to tell what stories in a politics of identity sort of way, the publishing industry is such that today, for the most part, only white people get to tell any stories at all. Those detractors, including Eva Longoria, cited other books written on the same topic by Latinx authors, such as Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey and Óscar Martínez’s The Beast, neither of which received the acclaim or attention of American Dirt. Books that some have suggested that Cummins borrowed heavily from in writing American Dirt. Another common criticism is how apolitical a book about the forced migration of brown people from countries devastated by US foreign policy into the country that destabilized their countries in the first place is. Everyone is travelling to the US, despite the dangers, because well where else would you go? Lydia does not for a moment consider going to, say, Costa Rica or Panama. She doesn’t even consider going to the US. She just does.
That’s a lot riding against this book before you read even the first sentence. So let’s talk about the book.
This book is quite obviously written for a very specific audience. That audience is middle and upper middle class white women who were born into comfort but consider themselves socially progressive. Cummins so much as says so in her author’s note: “So I saw an opening for a novel that would press a little more intimately into those stories, to imagine people on the flip side of that prevailing narrative. Regular people like me. How would I manage if I lived in a place that began to collapse around me? If my children were in danger, how far would I go to save them?” Lydia, therefore, must be as close to a Jane Doe that the target reader can import into as possible. So Lydia doesn’t know very much about how the cartels work in Mexico, so that the reader can learn it with her, and she must be shocked and horrified by it as a signal to the reader that they should be too. Her ignorance is also a balm to the reader, who doesn’t need to feel defensive about their own ignorance. She must move through this journey with the sort of WASPy stiff upper lip that will resonate with a reader who, hopefully, is imagining themselves in her place, and is judging her choices based on what they, who have never experienced true lack in their lives, are convinced they would do in her place. And she goes unthinkingly to America, because that’s the one choice the audience would not need explaining. Where else would anybody want to go but the Greatest Country on Earth? Alternatives are unthinkable.
I think the book is very effective at transporting people who could not be more disconnected from the experience of migrants into their shoes, as can be seen in the effusive praise that the book gets from predominantly white circles in the US and Canada. Indeed, I only picked it up because one of the book clubs I am a part of, one made up almost entirely of the target market, put it on the agenda. Does that have value? It’s hard to say. I do think that there is value finding ways of bringing people of privilege on side. Sympathetic causes get listened to, non-sympathetic causes get crushed. One thing I’ve noticed is that while I had no trouble getting American Dirt out at my library, there is a long wait list for both The Beast and Oscar’s Journey, which tells me that if nothing else, people are talking about forced migration and going to Latinx voices to learn about it.
Whether this means that the book is worth reading, or whether you might get more out of another book on the topic, or even just some non-fiction research into the realities of the harsh choices made by people forced by circumstances into becoming a migrant is really up to you, but I hope I gave you enough to chew on while you consider.