What we're reading: Reactions to 'American Dirt'

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Editor's note: In January, Jeanine Cummins' scheduled visit to the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester was canceled, as the book's publishers said the author and the stores she was slated to visit had been threatened. (The Northshire did not receive any threats, according to co-owner Chris Morrow.) That development meant a Southern Vermont discussion around the issues raised by "American Dirt," which has spent weeks in The New York Times Book Review's best-sellers list, was not to be. With that in mind, we offer reactions to the book from our sister publications UpCountry Magazine and The Berkshire Eagle.

The Book: "American Dirt," by Jeanine Cummins

Publisher: Flatiron Books (Jan. 21, 2020)

Synopsis: Lydia Quixano Perez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable. One day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia's husband's tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same. Forced to flee, Lydia and 8-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier's reach doesn't extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?

A page-turner, and nothing more

If you're looking for an accurate depiction of the migrant experience, immigration policy and Mexican culture, this isn't your book. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller, with a mother-son relationship that is gut-wrenching and hard to turn away from, you'll want to read "American Dirt." I'm not ashamed to admit, "American Dirt" was written for my demographic: a white woman, working mother, who often enjoys reading a family drama or easy thriller. I was all-in for Lydia and Luca's journey, so much so, that this book kept me awake at night. Perhaps it was Lydia's willingness to do anything, really anything, to keep her son safe in the face of the most horrible circumstances. Did she get a lot of perfectly timed, lucky breaks on her journey? You bet. Was her story more like a Lifetime movie than "The Grapes of Wrath" of our time, like the book jacket suggests? Absolutely. Was I glad I listened to the noise surrounding this book, but still read on. Yes. Where this book, and author Jeanine Cummins, goes terribly wrong is in the author's note at the end. Cummins admits her own place of privilege in writing this story, but instead of leaving it at that and suggesting titles by Mexican and Latinx authors who perhaps are lesser known but deserve to have their voices heard in this narrative, she doubles down on her privilege in an uncomfortable, almost naive way. An editor, publicist or publisher could have saved a lot of headache and money by taking a red pen to that note. They also should have red-penned the whole marketing roll out of this book. "American Dirt" is a great read for what it is, a family drama and thriller with fictional characters. But it shouldn't be held up as anything more than that.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features, The Berkshire Eagle

Disappointing effort

Not finishing a book isn't something I do. I might set it aside and come back to it later. But typically, I just struggle through it, hoping the ending will be worth it. I've been disappointed many times. "American Dirt" is the first book (I can remember), that I've decided to just quit. (My husband has assured me that this is something people do.) Why did I decide to put down the book? First, I'll admit I was hesitant to start it. I was highly aware of the criticism surrounding "American Dirt," as well as the horrible marketing errors promoting it. But, I decided to read it, hoping it would transcend the critics' complaints and spark conversations. I hoped it was at least well written. But instead, when I started reading, I found a lackluster thriller undeserving of the praise it's receiving. The first few pages are gripping, but as the book progresses and the journey north starts, the story is repetitive and full of cliches. Too often, I felt, Lydia's problems were #firstworldproblems (for example, the lack of having Luca's birth certificate in-hand keeps them from flying north). With all the praise, I had expected a work of literary genius. It was a disappointing read (I read over 200 pages) that felt forced and contrived. I put it down, because, in the end, it's undeserving of the hype and of the time I wasted reading it.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry Magazine editor

The plot pacing works; the results are mixed

"American Dirt" is, at times, as wildly gripping as it is wildly problematic.

I did my best to ignore the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins' novel, but it was so wide-ranging that it even leaked into my daily life. Someone at a party or on a comedy podcast seemed to always have an opinion. Still, I was able to keep as blank and unbiased a mind as possible during my time spent racing north through Mexico.

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And the result was mixed. Even just tangentially knowing a bit about the author's background and the subject matter here, there are truly cringe-worthy passages dotted throughout "American Dirt." Cummins seems like a well-traveled author, who puts an immense amount of research into her work. Still, it's pretty easy to see why folks have a problem with her telling this particular story.

On a story basis itself, the book really does rope you in from the outset with a short scene of absolute brutality, at times through the eyes of a young boy. And like that, we're off. On-the-run stories are some of my favorite, and Cummins hits a lot of peaks that kept me enthralled. She does a great job mixing in roadblocks that never seem too difficult to overcome or too easily side-stepped. You do have to dodge some characterizations and dialogue choices that are questionable to say the least, but the story keeps you riding the train, seemingly just beyond the reach of a cartel, led by a man who presumably wants our protagonists captured.

Therein lies my issue with the story. I say "presumably" because the resolution of American Dirt was borderline terrible. The antagonist — who we really only ever meet in flashbacks — never gives us any of his reasoning or his goals. He is apparently a brutal, but complex man, but in our final phone call between he and the protagonist, we get nothing?

Putting aside all the inherent issues with migrants crossing the US border and whether Cummins had the proper background to publish this tale, from a pure story perspective, "American Dirt" doesn't land.

— Mike Walsh, sports reporter, The Berkshire Eagle

Fiction that raises important questions

I preordered "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins, a few weeks before it was released and all the controversy over the book surfaced. By the time I finished reading the book, three days after the book's release, issues surrounding the author and the book had surfaced. I read "American Dirt" as I do every work of fiction — the characters, plot and situations in the book are just that: fiction. "American Dirt" is not a memoir, it's not a non-fiction account of a real migrant's journey. Cummings claims she spent hours talking to migrants as background research; the same type of research I do as a journalist. (I once read a book by a popular novelist in which a suspect was holed up in a house in the town of Florida and the PI chasing him went to purchase bullets at the Walmart in town and ate dinner at the town's McDonald's. There is neither. It was a work of fiction.)

"American Dirt" is the story of what lengths a mother, Lydia, will go to protect her son, Luca, after 16 family members, including her journalist husband, are gunned down at a party due to her husband's reporting about the activities of a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca are literally running for their lives immediately after losing their immediate family. I read the book as the mother of a son, wondering what I would have done — and if I could have done it. I couldn't put the book down. Would they make it to the United States, and if they did, what was waiting for them?

It may not be an accurate depiction of migrants and their journey to El Norte, but it did raise my awareness of the issue, and I hope it does the same for other readers — enough for them to explore the issue deeper and discuss it.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor, The Berkshire Eagle

Hard to believe

Reading this book is like playing The Oregon Trail, but if it's possible, a cleaned up version of the game. The genesis of the narrator's flight is outlandish and unbelievable - the narrator's best friend turns out to be the head of the local cartel who slaughters her family and she didn't know, despite her husband being a journalist and the local expert on the cartel. This flight then follows a formula, familiar to any 90s kid: They would travel for a bit, then meet a kindly stranger who would deliver a monologue of helpful information (a thin disguise for what's little more than an info dump of the author's research), then repeat. Lydia never loses her unrecognizable naivete, learning these new pieces of information for the first time with each conversation, as if despite her husband being a journalist she never had access to the news. Bad things never really happen to Lydia or her son, and if bad things happen to anyone the reader cares about, they happen offscreen - like playing without bothering to change the preset names. It's easy not to care if Zeke falls off the train, or Mary has a miscarriage, and it's the wrong narrative choice to make here. The narrator never loses her clothes or is bitten by a snake. Despite the massacre that begins the book, her life is somehow charmed. She is escaping drug violence and corruption with $12,000 in her pockets, $10,000 in the bank, and everyone she meets has a heart of gold. In the end, she and everyone she cares about get to make a new life in Maryland, and she has the information for an immigration lawyer.

— Meggie Baker, calendar editor


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