I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
Most of you will have heard how this book has stirred up a lot of controversy since its publication in January. I read some of the articles, but still wanted to read it and see what I thought for myself. I’ll give my thoughts on the whole situation at the end of this review.
American Dirt tells the story of Lydia and her son Luca, as they flee their comfortable home in a small Mexican tourist town after their entire family is murdered by the local cartel. Lydia has to abandon all she knows for the dangerous journey to the United States. Along the way she and Luca experience some of the horrors that can lie in wait for migrants.
This book is… depressing. I didn’t really have any fun reading it. Normally, even with sad books, there are at least some positive feelings while reading. (For example, The Book Thief is definitely a sad book, but parts of it are filled with joy and hope, and I adore that book.) This book, though, felt more like one terrible thing after another. I hesitate to use the word “slog” but… For me, it was a bit of a slog a lot of the time.
Lydia is a strong protagonist, full of determination but also fear. She is first and foremost a mother, and this really shines. Luca is a good secondary protagonist as well, very clever and wise in his own right. However, the point of view of the narrative often shifts between characters mid-scene (a pet peeve of mine). Normally, that isn’t a problem; however, here, I often couldn’t distinguish until the viewpoint was made obvious by the use of a character’s name. I know Luca is supposed to be a prodigy with a massive vocabulary, but I feel their internal voices should have been more distinct.
The other characters were good, but to me, they were quite obviously archetypes of the type of migrants that might be traveling to the US. And any character development that occurred felt like it was there merely to show versions of the migrants’ hardships and traumas. Few of them felt like real people, but instead symbols.
As for the controversy surrounding this book, I have mixed feelings. The fact that this is a non-Latina woman writing about the struggles of Latinx migrants doesn’t delight me. I am much more in favor of Own Voices narratives, where the less-represented or marginalized are given space and opportunity to share their stories themselves. However, it does appear that Cummins did her best to do research to make this a mostly faithful depiction. And the issues presented in this novel should be revealed and discussed, because we should all care about them. I only wonder if some of the portrayals verge on stereotypical or exaggerated; I am not the one to make this judgment call, of course, so I will defer to the readers who have firsthand knowledge of life in Latin and South America.
Furthermore, while I do believe there is some merit to this book—it has brought attention to the struggles of migrants, after all—I do not believe it necessarily deserves all the critical acclaim it has garnered. I didn’t love the writing style, and found it to be overly dark for darkness’ sake. We should shift our attention to writings by Latinx authors, who don’t get the attention nearly as often as other ethnicities.
And I cannot help but wonder… if this had been written by a Latinx writer instead of a white author, would it still have received the dozens of laudatory blurbs and massive publisher marketing scheme? Or does the publishing industry still favor certain demographics as authors?
In the end, American Dirt is not a book I’ll ever reread, and I think there are better people who could have told a story like this. However, I hope this novel will pave the way for different authors, whose voices have not been given the spotlight in mainstream publishing.