American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A book discussion, with a brief true crime digression

July 22, 2021 at 3:22 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

I thought this would be a good discussion – but I didn’t know just how good!

First of all, the turnout was better that I’d anticipated – ten people, which is a good number for this type of gathering. And secondly, everyone was primed to let loose with their feelings and impressions.

There was general agreement that the novel was a terrific reading experience. Right from the outset, Jeanine Cummins manages to generate tremendous suspense, while creating characters that are real and immensely sympathetic.

When their entire family is ruthlessly murdered at their home in Acapulco, Lydia and her son Luca are the sole survivors. The killers, members of a powerful cartel, will not stop until they have taken out Lydia and Luca as well. And so mother and son must  flee; there is no alternative. They do as so many of their countrymen, as well as others from further South have done: They join los migrantes on their journey, north to el norte.

And what a journey it is – full of danger  and heartbreak. I felt as though I were going along with them. Except that I could take a break and close the book for a while – something I kept having to do. Lydia and Luca and the others had no choice but to keep going.

Carol admitted that she paged forward to the conclusion so she could be reassured that Lydia and Luca survived their ordeal. In her review for the New York Times, Lauren Groff says: “A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, American Dirt, I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house.” (This is a terrific article, well worth reading in its entirety.)

Connie reminded us of the importance of the issue of trust in this story. On top of the day to day worries concerning mere survival, Lydia had to be constantly looking over her shoulder to see if there were someone – it could be anyone – traveling with their group who was in the pay of the cartel whose leader wanted her dead, That person could reveal her whereabouts, or just kill her outright. If anything happened to her, what would become of Luca?

Luca. To me, he was the beating heart of this novel. An exceptionally bright little boy, with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of justice; moreover, he was endowed with warmth and generosity, plus other endearing traits that make some children especially lovable.

It’s hard to discuss American Dirt without dwelling on the controversy that surrounded its publication early last year. Certain commentators, especially from the Latino and Latina communities, tore into it, claiming that Cummins’s description of the migrants was stereotyped and inaccurate. The consensus among them seemed to be that she was writing about people and an experience that she  simply didn’t understand – couldn’t understand, because of her outsider status.

I read up on this subject to a fair degree, and I think that the harshest criticism stems from the fact that American Dirt was given such a large publicity push by its publisher, Flatiron Books, accompanied, at least initially, with rapturous praise. Among other things, this resulted in Jeanine Cummins receiving a seven-figure advance and American Dirt being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.. Other worthy titles by Latino and Latina writers have been given nowhere near this kind of support, by their publishers or by anyone else.

From Ann Patchett:

“There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention….If it had  been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d  be seeing the same level of outrage.”

For my part, I can understand the frustration and resentment occasioned by this incident. I also feel that certain practices by the publishing industry have  been been exposed to the glare of publicity and are being seen as arbitrary and money-grubbing. In my opinion, rightly so.

One thing I can’t agree with at all is the level of disparagement that, in some cases, has  been directed at this novel. The most egregious example of this that I personally have seen comes from a review in the New York Times by Parul Sehgal. I don’t want to quote from this article at any length here, because it makes me slightly crazy just to look at it. Suffice it to say that among the brickbats Parul Sehgal hurls at American Dirt is the assertion that Cummins is guilty of “mauling the English language.”

Did she read the same novel I did ?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m hypersensitive about precision, beauty, and correctness in writing. One misplaced apostrophe and I’m likely to go off on a rant. So I just want to voice the opinion here that American Dirt contains some of the most powerful and compelling writing I’ve encountered in a work of fiction in a long time.

This sentence describes the first  glimpse Lydia and Luca get of the notorious freight train known as La Bestia – The Beast:

There’s a new reverence to having seen it with their own eyes, the unfeeling crush of the wheels along their rails, the men clinging to the exoskeleton like beetles on a window screen.

Holding Luca outside her body for the first time, Lydia expected there would be a moment when these notions would flood through her, all at once, like a small death. A portal. She’d hoped, like on of those desert rattlesnakes, to shed the skin off her anguish and leave it behind her in the Mexican dirt. But the moment of the crossing had already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante.

(That last word is translated by Google as ‘Go ahead.’ In this context, I think it actually means ‘Keep going.’)

I think that this article in Vox provides a good summary of the controversy.

I believe I speak fairly for our group when I say that we thought this novel was outstanding. The plot – especially the creation and maintaining of extreme suspense, the memorable characters, the writing – every aspect won praise. Two people had first hand experience of travel in Mexico; they expressed that from their viewpoint,  Cummins’s depiction of the country was reasonably accurate.

We felt genuine sympathy for writers whose work hasn’t had the kind of push Jeanine Cummins got from Flatiron Books and Oprah Winfrey. From Daniel Hernandez in the Los Angeles Times:

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events.

He adds, significantly:

The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

This, then, is the fault of insensitive publisher and publicist, and not the fault of the novel at all.

I don’t think that any of us subscribed to the notion that an author should only write about groups, ethnicities, or whatever, of which he or she is, or has been, an active member. It is possible to identify powerfully with people who are “other” than yourself. Why do I feel so connected to England and its ancient history and persisting myths?? I have no blood relation to any of it. But from my very young years I have identified with it, felt part of it. When I am there, I feel a strong sense of belonging. It may be irrational, but it is potent nonetheless. Empathy can be a very powerful emotion, enabling you to transcend differences.

I want to acknowledge that  this is the third time in as many years that this group has caused me to read a book I initially had no intention of reading. (The other two were Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko.) I’m very glad to have read all three. Thanks, AAUW Readers!

American Dirt is in development as a feature film. There’s very little current information on it that I could find. Here’s the trailer, but it too is pretty uninformative.

I feel as though I’ve left out quite a bit here, both from our discussion and the novel itself. I hope their are no blatant inaccuracies. Please let me know if you spot any.
******************

In the course of my brief biographical sketch of Jeanine Cummins, I mentioned that her first book was a work of nonfiction entitled A Rip in Heaven. In it she tells the story of a crime, or crimes, that took place within her own family. We briefly got into a discussion of the genre of true crime books. I read extensively in this area and taught a short course in it for Osher a couple of years ago. If you have further interest, there is lots of material online. I have written quite a few posts on the subject for this blog. If you want to read just one, I recommend ‘The Enduring Fascination with True Crime.’

 

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