This highly anticipated book not only ripped open a long discussed dialogue on the migrant crisis, and has been on the 2020 book list of pretty much every bibliophile worth their credence. Not only did the controversy surrounding this book make it land on my radar, the fact that the author was forced to cancel her book tour because of the “backlash” peaked my interest just that much more; but also because the subject matter weighed heavily on me. When I tell you I sped through this book, (except for certain instances/scenes where it was too heavy for me), I read this as if thirsty. So, on this week’s blog post, check out our review of Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt.
“Because fear and corruption work in tandem to censor the people who might otherwise discover the clues that would point to justice. There will be no evidence, no due process, no vindication.”
The book chronicles mother and son, Lydia and Luca Quixano on the run from a cartel lord, La Lechuza, after her husband Sebastian, a journalist publishes an exposé revealing his identity as Javier Crespo Fuentes. Despite Javier and Lydia’s spontaneous friendship and Javier’s apparent love for her. The revelation of Javier’s identity sets off a series of events which completely annihilates Lydia and Luca’s life as they know it. Javier puts out a hit on Sebastian, but doesn’t end there- he has Lydia’s entire family massacred at her niece’s quincentina. When every single member of her family are brutally murdered, this leaves Lydia and Luca alive solely out of luck, devastated and betrayed Lydia must protect Luca, survive and find a way to escape one of the deadliest places to live with a dangerous cartel chasing her.
Break it Down:
Gripped. I rushed through the first 3-4 chapters so quickly, it was as if I had whiplash. To say that the 1st few pages are gripping doesn’t do it justice, I read it with beating heart and genuine fear as if I was Lydia or at least on the run with them. I shed deep painful tears reading the detail and gruesome scene of Lydia trying to usher her traumatized son through her mother’s courtyard where 11 bullet riddled bodies lay. I actually needed to close and put the book down because it hurt me in my core. The very thought of witnessing something like this was a shock, but also the way in which Jeanine Cummings was able to clearly depict the fear, the trauma, the deep urge of maternal protection and visceral survival. As a reader, it was terrifying but also gripping, I was immediately able to put myself in Lydia’s shoes and her fears felt like they were my own.
I have to admit that the series of events which sets the ball rolling for Lydia and Luca to be on the run, wasn’t something I expected. I never anticipated that Javier, the man who befriended Lydia in her bookstore and who shared her love for reading and bonded over this- would one, fall so deeply in love with Lydia, but also would be the leader of a drug cartel. It almost didn’t make sense or it was as if he wanted to be a more “elevated” murderer, the profile just simply didn’t fit. It was also almost like the calm before the storm with Lydia knowing Sebastian was going to publish his exposé on Javier and yet she didn’t consider it would anger and ultimately trigger a manhunt for her husband and family. I’m surprised at her naiveté to be honest and I also don’t know why she continued her friendship once she realized just how dangerous of a man he really was, but maybe she was simply too scared and didn’t know what to do, but I feel like she believed his love for her would protect her. Unfortunately, I feel like Javier believed if he got rid of Sebastian, then it would make it easier for him to be with Lydia. I will say though, that throughout the book, the stress and fear she held for Javier was so built up and then when she eventually “spoke” to him on Lorenzo’s phone- it somewhat frustrated me with the outcome. I expected her to be a bit more angry, especially for what it took to get to where she was, mentally, physically and emotionally- she went through a lot and I wanted the journey she took to pour out of her in that instant; and it fell flat.
I was genuinely happy when Lydia decided to befriend Rebecca and Soledad, two extremely beautiful 15 and 14 year old El Savadorian sisters, she becomes their de facto mother and the fact they essentially become a unit in some ways protects them. Especially as the girls had been on the road longer than Lydia and Luca, unfortunately they were a lot more street smart in regards to what to look out for on the trek. It allowed them to use their experience and knowledge and in some ways it made them as a unit much stronger. It devastated me when they got so close to the border and thought they were rounded up by border patrol- la migra, when in fact it was fake border patrol. The brutality and just disgustingness in their behaviour really made me sick, how they not only treated the men, but also you can imagine the women. I was stunned on how the assault of Soledad and Rebecca played out, I think the author was trying to protect the reader in some ways, by not having to give a description of their assault, but by describing it through Lydia’s maternal instincts and the state the girls return in- bloodied, dirty with tear marks on their faces.. It was also so remarkable that despite his age, Luca’s bravery speaking to the leader of the la migras when saying that he didn’t want to leave without the girls- in that instant he showed the naiveté and power of a child’s innocence, but also the bravery of not wanting to leave his friends behind and Lydia using the majority of the money she had left in order to buy their freedom. The confusion of it all is so distasteful, they essentially kidnap people and then threaten violence, rape or death if they can’t pay to buy their own freedom- it’s beyond disgusting. But, I was relieved that Lydia took the risk and paid,, it would have shifted the reader’s perspective of her, but I also wouldn’t have blamed her entirely if she hadn’t.
Lorenzo’s character really annoyed me- he literally was like a zit you couldn’t pop. He himself was on the run as he wanted out of the gang life, but he was an inadvertent help and hinderance to Lydia. Because he was very blunt and in some ways thought himself bigger than he was, and this was his weakness, so he ended up giving Lydia information without knowing. But, I couldn’t help but think if he was just that bit more mature, Lydia and Luca wouldn’t have made it as far as they did. In the end, Lorenzo’s gang life got the better of him, after surviving their brutal and violent assault at the hands of La Migras, the girls were permanently and irreversibly changed, so when Lorenzo attempts to force himself on one of the sisters, he meets his demise when the other sister grabs a gun and shoots him. I have to admit to being completely stunned by this, but on some level it was like letting out pressure from a balloon.
I suppose my only negative is the fact that this book ended; of course it couldn’t go on forever- but I was left with a sense of sadness to be leaving Lydia and Luca’s journey, I felt like I had travelled with them throughout the book and found it hard to put it down- I found it to be true to some of the stories we know and hear about. Their journey to safety has only really begin in the US, because they will have a lot of hurdles to jump over. But I also found it interesting that their family lived a good life in Mexico and yet Lydia’s only option is to become a domestic worker- the transition must not have been easy for her and I appreciate the author making a point to mention it. I have read many reviews regarding this book and I think I would be remiss if I don’t mention the comments they posed re: the authors many errors when it comes to Mexican culture and some glaring mistruths, I will fully say that none of these stood out to me, but that’s because I am in no way knowledgeable on Mexican culture, so as a Western reader- it all went over my head. I respect the fact that there are plenty of Latinx authors out there who have detailed books on the migrant crisis and they are fully informed and educated on this topic, so I can see why irregularities and flat out falsities would frustrate them; I just personally couldn’t fault them, because I didn’t know what they were to begin with, so we can each be the judge for ourselves. So, as a rookie when it comes to immigration and the migrant crisis, American Dirt proved to me eye opening and opened up my perspective, which essentially is the very point.
“That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”
Would I recommend?:
I can definitely see why there was buzz over this book, it deserves it. Yaa Gyasi has a way with words that is so transformative and raw. I felt the pain of each character and felt like I was a sibling- I was transfixed into the book. It’s a wonderful, great read. 100% would recommend!
There is no question of this book’s importance, the subject matter is beyond pivotal, it’s about poverty, it’s about gender, it’s about power, it’s about survival. I think for someone who genuinely can’t say I am an expert on this topic- it’s a great book, to at the very least gives another perspective and also add faces, names and stories to the migrant crisis.
The RnR Rating:
4.5 out of 5