I really don’t know where to start with this one.
American Dirt tells the story of Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca’s, attempt to cross US-Mexico border. There will be spoilers in this, there’s no other way I can write about it, so apologies in advance.
From the back
FEAR KEEPS THEM RUNNING. HOPE KEEPS THEM ALIVE.
Yesterday, Lydia had a bookshop.
Yesterday, Lydia was married to a journalist.
Yesterday, she was with everyone she loved most in the world.
Today, her eight-year-old son Luca is all she has left.
For him, she will carry a machete strapped to her leg.
For him, she will leap onto the roof of a high speed train.
For him, she will find the strength to keep running.
Lydia and Luca are living in Acapulco when her entire family are murdered by a cartel after her husband, an investigative journalist, writes an expose on the new cartel boss ‘The Owl’, the first sentence throws you into this with a description of a bullet whizzing through the bathroom.
Lydia must act quickly, she has to flee with Luca and get out of Mexico as quickly as possible, she has to find safety. She has to become an undocumented immigrant in the US.
There are 11.6 million Mexican immigrants in the US, in 2017 4.9 million were undocumented. It’s a story that needs telling, understanding of why people take life threatening risks to enter the US is needed, but, American Dirt didn’t hit the right note for me.
This isn’t an argument about who should write about who (I hear the criticism), it was well researched, but, for me, it felt a little too much like a thriller, something I didn’t get with The Beekeeper on Aleppo earlier this year.
I know the author had good intentions with American Dirt
“I am acutely aware, that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass, but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique […] I want to honour the hundreds of thousands of stories we never get to hear”. Jeanine Cummins.
Despite her intentions and desire to tell the stories of immigrants, it missed the point and there were times I felt as if I was reading a script for the next big Hollywood action movie, complete with awkward love triangle.
Lydia had become friends with ‘The Owl’ or Javier, unbeknownst to her that he was a cartel boss, he’d fallen in love with her, this twist felt forced and wholly unnecessary. I found her character to be naïve and sheltered – despite her being married to an investigative journalist who wrote about cartels – she then switched to being extremely capable, competent and aware in no time at all, it was a little jarring.
There’s no denying the threats people face making the journey, but it felt sensationalist and flattened an incredibly complex and emotive subject, it felt a little patronising, at times stereotypical and a lot like trauma porn.
And that’s the problem.
It didn’t dig deep enough into the many different reasons people choose to cross the border. It felt like using graphic violence from the opening page was the easiest way to drive the narrative and to get readers rooting for Lydia from the off, who wouldn’t do the same in her position? There was no discussion of economic and political complexities surrounding migration.
I’d have liked to have known what happened when Lydia and Luca got to the US, what happens then? It felt as though we were being told that everything would be fine and work out as planned once they got there, there’d be no more danger, we know that’s not how the world works.
American Dirt fell short for me, it could have opened up discussion and debate, it didn’t. Forcing the “hundreds of thousands of stories we never get to hear” into one, meant that Cummins only succeeded in writing a fast-paced thriller rather than a book that had something to say.
If anyone else has read this, I’d really like to know your thoughts in the comments…
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm