Monday, January 31, 2022

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

12 comments :

  1. Sounds like a good book. thanks for reviewing!

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    1. It was well written but the topic was heart tugging. - Margy

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  2. That would be a tough question to answer, especially in a second language! How wonderful that you were able to help so many children over you career to bridge the language divide.

    I got the sense the fault was more of her marketer than the author herself for packaging the author as Latina when she didn't speak the language and only had one Hispanic grandmother. There were also charges of plagiarism that were more troubling, for example lifting scenes from a Latino man's blog without permission. That said, if this book encourages empathy for immigrants, that is good, and I hope will lead to more Latino authors being published.

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    1. I think it was good that I didn't read any of the reviews until after I read the book. - Margy

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  3. I am of two minds regarding who can tell a story. I hate to think we are all limited to our little box. Is that really a way to broaden our horizon. I just don't know.

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    1. I think you are right. If you know a subject, you should be able to write about it. The difficulty comes when there is a claim about the author's background that is untrue or misleading. - Margy

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  4. Great review, Margy. An important topic.

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  5. There was a bidding war for this book. I'm surprised publishers didn't think through the potential problems given how big a topic appropriation. And then Flatiron talked up the author's husband being an immigrant...not mentioning he was from Ireland. They didn't think that might come to light? I think I read somewhere the author was worried about telling this story. Did she address this in an afterword in the book? I thought I read that somewhere. Anyway, like Patti, I really don't know how much we want to limit writers. And, like Sarah, I think marketing made some huge errors. All this discussion aside, American Dirt sounds like a good read and an important read. And, Margy, I'm sure you did reach accomplish your goal♥️ Thanks for reviewing. You really got us all thinking!

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    1. The author went into detail in the afterward about her years of research and interviews with knowledgeable people. There was no clarity about her husband's heritage, only that he was an immigrant trying to get a green card. I assumed he was Hispanic based on the focus of the book. - Margy

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  6. What a tough question that would have been!
    I remember an interview for my section 22 class, and they didn't have anyone on staff who wanted to teach anger management students.
    I will put this on my To Read list, despite the controversy.
    Maybe in spite of.
    Perhaps it is a good question for a debate. Can people write about the opposite gender? Culture and traditions are a different issue.

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    1. I remember sitting in a staff meeting where the principal was trying to get a volunteer to teach a combination kindergarten/first grade bilingual class. After a long pause I raised my hand. It was the best teaching experience I ever had. - Margy

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Thanks for stopping by. Comments, questions, and suggestions are always welcome. - Margy