Jeanine Cummins' migrant book 'American Dirt' is problematic; author’s note makes it worse
“American Dirt” (Flatiron, 400 pp., ★½ out of four) starts out as one hell of a thriller: At her niece’s quinceañera, Lydia’s entire family is slaughtered by a cartel: 16 people total, including her journalist husband, who had recently profiled the cartel’s leader, Javier – a man Lydia had unwittingly befriended and had only known as a bookish, bespectacled poet who frequented her little Acapulco bookstore, until her husband broke the news. Only Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca, escape the carnage. But she knows Javier will come for them.
It’s a gripping scenario. Then things get real problematic real fast.
Jeanine Cummins’ book morphs quickly into a harrowing migrant’s tale, charting Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey from Acapulco to the United States. In Mexico, Javier has his tentacles in everything; only in el norte will they be safe. To get there, they will need to follow the path carved by the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of migrants before them across the border and through the desert, and Cummins depicts their travails in unsparing, lurid detail.
“American Dirt” positions itself as the great sociopolitical novel of our era. Instead, it reeks of opportunism, substituting character arcs for mere trauma. Bones are broken. Bodies are ripped apart beneath trains. Women are raped, and raped again. Multiple children die graphically, one crushed beneath a garbage truck.
'American Dirt' does a poor job of displaying the real immigrant experience
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To witness it all, Cummins has crafted an outsider with whom any reader can take the journey with a sympathetic heart, a middle-class working mother who crosses the border illegally only because she’s forced to by an all-powerful villain. It’s a cunning calculation, and also a deeply cynical one. Along the way, she encounters innumerable characters who exist solely to explain various aspects of the process (coyotes, border patrol, ICE agents) in stilted exposition, and every brown person reads as a potential threat.
Characters make terrible decisions that defy logic to advance the plot along a thriller’s prescribed path. As he’s preparing to publish his profile on Javier, Lydia’s husband asks her in a flashback if they should disappear for a bit, to be on the safe side. “No, I think we’re fine,” Lydia says. They pop a couple of beers and relax. It’s one of many bewildering acts committed by otherwise intelligent characters.
Even on a sentence level, “American Dirt” is frequently cringeworthy. Lydia doesn’t just blink her eyes, she “funnels gratitude into the slow blink of her lashes.” As a man plummets to his death from the top of a train, “his shadow makes the shape of grief as he hurtles toward the earth.” One woman fighting off a rapist “can feel the hard club of his anatomy pushing against her stomach.”
These character, story and style missteps would be problematic no matter the source. But it matters in this case that the source is a European-born woman in the U.S. without ties to the Mexican migrant experience. In anticipation of these criticisms, Cummins defends her decision to write this story in her author’s note. But even there, she does more damage than damage control. “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” Cummins writes. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
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Lots of someones “slightly browner” than Cummins did write it. Just last year, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli published the searingly smart “Lost Children Archive.” In 2018, there was the beautifully written “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” by Colombian writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Or there’s even 2004’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Devil’s Highway” by Mexican writer Luis Alberto Urrea – an author Lydia cites as one of her favorites.
In her author’s note, Cummins goes on to write, “At worst, we perceive [migrants] 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.”
I am sorry, but who is we?
Nevertheless, some people have given "American Dirt" rave reviews, including Oprah Winfrey, who announced the book as her latest book club pick. “Jeanine Cummins accomplishes a remarkable feat, literally putting us in the shoes of migrants and making us feel their anguish and desperation to live in freedom,” says Winfrey.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘American Dirt’ migrant book by Jeanine Cummins is problematic