American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Reviewed by Rod McLary

American Dirt, when first published in the United States, attracted some controversy because of its subject matter and because it was written by an author who has identified as white.  The controversy centred on the fact that the book chronicles the escape of a mother and her eight-year-old son from Mexico to the United States after the massacre of their family by a drug cartel.  Critics argued that it was culturally inappropriate for a non-Mexican to write – and later market – a story of the travails of the Mexican people generally and the mother and son in particular.  Essentially, the argument goes that it is not the author’s story to tell.

Many readers would recall a similar controversy at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 when American author Lionel Shriver spoke about ‘identity politics in fiction’ and contended that writers ‘can wear many hats’.  This was seen as allowing ‘cultural appropriation’ – claiming other people’s stories as one’s own.  Considerable opprobrium was directed to Ms Shriver at the time and since.

While not wishing to engage further in this critical and important argument, it is equally important from the reviewer’s perspective to determine whether American Dirt is an accurate depiction of the social and cultural milieu of the Mexican people.  That is not an easy question to answer and it seems that only those who have lived that experience are in a position to tell.  Consequently, the issue of cultural appropriation will have to be put aside at least for the purpose of this review.

Lydia Quixano Pérez owns a bookshop in Acapulco; her husband Sebastián is an investigative journalist whose articles focus on the exposure of the drug cartels and particularly Los Jardineros – the cartel which controls Acapulco.  Together, Lydia and Sebastián have a rather intellectually precocious son Luca who is eight.  The most recent of Sebastián’s articles precipitates the massacre of Lydia’s extended family at a barbeque celebrating the fifteenth birthday of Lydia’s niece Ynifer.  Only Lydia and Luca survive.  It is just a matter of time before the sicarios [assassins] realise there are two survivors, so Lydia and Luca begin their escape to the United States.

Thus unfolds a suspenseful – and at times heart-wrenching – tale of violence, sexual assaults and corruption as Lydia and Luca traverse the 53-day, 2645-mile unofficial trail from Acapulco to Tucson Arizona.  The dangers are compounded by Lydia’s understandable reluctance to trust others as anyone could be a sicario or a halcone [lookout for the cartel] or, even worse, a narcotraficante [drug dealer and thus a member of the cartel].  But the journey cannot be done without Lydia placing her trust – and most of her money – in the hands of strangers.

To avoid being intercepted at an airport or train station, Lydia and Luca must ride on La Bestia – a goods train which travels by a rather circuitous route to the US:Mexican border.  Many hundreds of migrants ride the roof of La Bestia trying to avoid la policia who wait for the train to stop and then capture what migrants they can chase down.

As a balance, there are places along the way where local people are kind to the migrants and provide them with food, water and sometimes shelter.  These altogether too brief interludes provide some respite from the constant fear of discovery and assault – and for Lydia and Luca, the fear of being found by Los Jardineros.

As American Dirt was inspired by the experiences of the thousands of migrants who make this dangerous journey into the United States, the story sometimes appears contrived.  For example, Luca who memorises the population of various cities in the States is able to draw on this knowledge to extricate himself and Lydia from a dangerous situation.  So, in order to advance the narrative and, at the same time, to maintain tension, situations are created which seem to come from different sources and are inserted into the story not always seamlessly.  Overall, while this may not detract too much from the story, it does at times appear clunky.

Some of the characters are two-dimensional.  For example, Lorenzo, the seventeen-year-old sicario who pretends to be wanting a fresh start, betrays his true colours twice over towards the end of the tale; Danilo the kind-hearted machete-carrying ‘large, mustached man’ who protects them and leads them to safety; the cartel chief who has a journalist beheaded but loves poetry and his daughter; and Beto – aged eleven – streetwise and witty who befriends Luca but dies from an asthma attack only hours from the border.

But nevertheless, there is a compelling narrative drawing the reader further and further into the lives of these migrants striving to save themselves and create a better life in the States.  The reader will find that s/he readily becomes immersed in the story and any response to the various incidents tends to be visceral rather than intellectual – which presumably is the intention of the author.  The novel works best when it addresses the thoughts and feelings of Lydia – the overwhelming emotions generated by fear – as in the following passage when Lydia questions why the sicario is still with them:

Perhaps he disliked murdering.  Perhaps he felt the acts of violence he committed had some undesirable effect on him.  Perhaps he had nightmares, the faces of the people he’d killed floating up before him whenever he closed his eyes.  Maybe he was haunted, hunted, ragged in his soul.  Or maybe the precise opposite was true.  [214-215]

While the arguments around cultural appropriation are valid, American Dirt can be enjoyed as a novel which displays meticulous research and a genuine concern for the migrants who may arrive in the States only to be deported and have to start their journey over again.  It is a novel of some power and deserves to be read.

American Dirt


by Jeanine Cummins

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 4792 6140 3

$32.99; 457pp

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