Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Book Review: "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins

I'm currently in Arizona and just finished reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Books, 2020). In fact, I finished reading this compelling novel in Tucson, Arizona, the destination for Lydia and her eight young old son Luca after they escaped tragedy in their home town of Acapulco, Mexico.

There are mixed feelings in the United States about undocumented immigrants. Those feelings are more evident here in Arizona. There are few people that hold the middle ground. Many want to continue building the wall and deter border crossings at all costs. Others have sympathy for undocumented immigrants and provide them with empathy and support.

I grew up and in California. As a teen, I spent summers with my grandparents near Modesto, a major agricultural area. Much of the labour was provided by undocumented immigrants. I saw how whole families and single men were forced to live in squalid conditions without recourse. Later, when I became a teacher, then a principal, I saw how the fear of discovery weighed heavily on daily life, and how the power of street gangs took the place of cartels.

Jeanine Cummins has first hand knowledge of immigrant issues. She also spent years in research and sought personal experiences for her so novel it would tell a true to life story.

The Review: Lydia Quixano PĂ©rez befriends an unassuming man who visits her book store not knowing he's a cartel lord. Her husband is a journalist who writes an expose about this same man. Lydia is conflicted because she feels she knows the gentle side of Javier. It turns out she is wrong, almost dead wrong. After her family of sixteen was gunned down at a party at her parent's home, she knew she had to flee. With the far reaching arms of the cartel leader, she knew it had to be fast and far, all the way to el norte.

Lydia and Luca follow the same trail as many other immigrants searching for safety and economic improvement. After a harrowing bus ride and help from a friend, they reach Mexico City. From there they meet other migrants heading north. Even though Lydia has money, unlike most of the rest, her fear is discovery by Javier through members of his Los Jardineros cartel. Of the options available, she settles on walking and riding on top of La Bestia, trains with connections to U.S. border cities. Along the way she experiences many of the same trials and tragedies as thousands of other Mexicans and Central Americans hoping for a better life in el norte.

I did not read reviews before reading American Dirt. It was recommended by Wayne and that was enough for me. Reading reviews now, the book has been criticized because Jeanine is estadounidense (American). Some reviewers felt this story should have be told by someone of Mexican or Central American heritage. That reminded me of the time I was working on my bilingual teacher certification. At the end there was an oral examination. One of the questions was, "What gives you the right to teach our children." At the time I felt it was a harsh thing to say. Now that I look back on it, it was profound. I only knew of their life experience from the outside. I'm don't remember what I answered, spoken in Spanish, but I hope it conveyed that I was an ally and would do everything in my power to teach their children in an unbiased manner with heart and caring. After 31 years in the profession I feel that I was able accomplish that goal.

American Dirt was a #1 New York Times best seller and became an Oprah's Book Club selection. I read mine on my new Kindle Paperwhite. That's a perfect way to stay stocked in books while traveling across Arizona in our RV. -- Margy

Visit the monthly Book Review Club for teen/young adult and adult fiction over at Barrie Summy's blog.

Also shared with Your the Star at Stone Cottage Adventures.

 And also posted at Book Date

Monday, November 8, 2021

Book Review: "Indian Horse" by Richard Wagamese

The last book I reviewed, A Perfect Storm by Mike Martin, led me to this month's book. The main character in the Sgt. Windflower Mystery series is a Cree RCMP officer. He maintains traditional practices, and reads Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations by Richard Wagamese for solace and inspiration. After reviewing books by Wagamese, I selected Indian Horse to be my first.

Indian Horse is a novel about Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway from Northern Ontario. He was raised by his grandmother in traditional ways, but at age eight he was forced to live at an Indian residential school.

Residential schools were funded by the Department of Indian Affairs and administered by churches. Their purpose was to expunge Indigenous ways and inculcate Canadian culture. Attendance for school age children was compulsory from 1894 until an unconscionable 1996 when the last closed. 

Not only were Indigenous children ripped from their families during formative years, they were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuses, and too many died from harsh conditions and torture. The result is generations of First Nation peoples alienated from their culture and language, lacking education, and experiencing post-traumatic syndrome and racism.

Indian Horse takes us through this dark period through the eyes of Saul. The book opens with him telling the reader that he has been told he needs to tell the stories to understand where he is from and where he is going. As his story unfolds, we can feel his joy and sadness, his success and failure, his anguish and emergence from a blocked out horrific experience. 

Canadians are going through a reconciliation process to "redress the legacy of residential schools." In 2008, then Prime Minister Harper issued an apology on behalf of the Canadian government. That same year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to hear testimony.  Their "Call to Action" was finally released in 2015.

A community traditional canoe carving reconciliation project.

Towns like Powell River across Canada brought Settlers (non-Indigenous Canadians) and First Nation members together to have hard conversations and to develop a better understanding of the ramifications of racial prejudice and subjugation. As a Settler in my native U.S.A. and my Canadian home I personally have a lot of work to do to reconcile my life of white privilege with systemic racism.

Indian Horse was the "People's Choice" Award of Canada Reads and First Nations Community Reads winner in 2012.  It's not an easy read, but the message is important especially now. I highly recommend Indian Horse and am looking forward to my next Richard Wagamese book.

Here's another book related to truth and reconciliation. Powell River is located on traditional land of the Tla'amin First Nation, a Coast Salish tribe. Written As I Remember It by elder Elsie Paul tells about this same period of time from a local perspective. 

Raised by her grandparents and hidden from authorities during fall sweeps, she was forced to attend the Sechelt Residential School at age ten. He memoir includes Tla'amin Nation history from oral traditions to the present as her people move away from Indian Act control to a self-governing nation. 

 Both books are available online including Amazon. -- Margy