American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The cover art evokes tiles painted with stylized blue birds, separated by barbed wire.

By Gabriela P.

American Dirt’s story begins with Lydia’s family joyously gathering to celebrate her niece’s quinceanera. The day quickly becomes the beginning of a nightmare when the party is suddenly interrupted by a group of men with no regard for human life launching a violent attack. Lydia and her son, Luca, make it out only through luck. She realizes the attack was planned in vengeance against her journalist husband, who had recently exposed the identity of an infamous drug cartel’s leader. She realizes the leader was a frequent patron of her bookstore, one that she had considered a kindred spirit and even a friend because of his love of books. It is then that Lydia realizes the race is on to save both of their lives. Without time to bury her relatives or even cry, they leave their home in Acapulco. With this begins a story of cat and mouse as Lydia and her son set off on a dangerous mission to find refuge in the United States, following in the footsteps of many Central American immigrants before them.

When mention of American Dirt came up in conversation, several of my colleagues asked me, being Latina, of my opinion of it after it was received with controversial reviews. I was hesitant to pick it up only because of my familiarity with the tragic history of Central American immigrants to the United States, and I knew how emotionally taxing the subject could be. Looking back, I am glad I decided to read it, if only to be able to speak on its shortcomings. I have to say that I feel that, while detailed and evocative, the story came up short in its representations of immigrants and was especially off the mark when it came to cartels. The cartel leader is romanticized, being painted as a man of poetry and philosophy, with a deeply rich life. In reality, cartels are dysfunctional and dehumanizing organizations full of fear. They certainly have no mysterious allure to them.

In regards to our protagonist, Lydia, her background as a highly educated woman of the middle class does not align with the decisions that she made in the story. The danger that she put her and her son in was unnecessary and a poor decision. She leads them along one of the dangerous paths to the United States border, one usually only followed by the most desperate and poor immigrants as a final resort. Unlike so many of the people who would have taken that path, Lydia had options. She was comfortably middle class, with a college education, connections, and resources available to her. As such, I have to say that her story is not very realistic. Instead, I would have liked to read more about her companions on the journey, who truly represent the people who would have had to adopt such dangerous measures. These people holding on to hope, fleeing for the safety of themselves and for the survival of their loved ones, truly represent bravery. The end of Lydia’s story, though conclusive, left me frustrated. Her complacent satisfaction with her new job in the United States left a bitter taste in my mouth, speaking as a Central American immigrant myself. 

If you choose to dive into American Dirt, I would take its legitimacy and credibility with a grain of salt. Let’s not forget it’s fiction. If you are interested in a nonfiction book that explores the topic with more nuance and depth, I highly recommend Enrique’s Journey by journalist Sonia Nazario, her account of a young Honduran boy’s perilous quest to reunite with his mother in the United States. Nazario based the book on her Los Angeles Times series of articles, also called Enrique’s Journey, which won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2003.

American Dirt is also available in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby, and also as an eaudiobook from CloudLibrary. Enrique’s Journey is also available as an eBook from Libby, an eAudiobook in Spanish, also from Libby, and in a young reader’s edition for teens, which was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of four books on their Best Teen Nonfiction Book of the Year list for 2013.

Gabriela is a customer service specialist at the Miller Branch. She loves long walks, reading with her dog, and a good cup of coffee.