American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

2.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Lydia Quixano Pérez feels that she has the ideal life. She is happily married and has a young son. She is also lucky enough to have her own bookshop which she stock with books that will sell and a selection of personal favourites that rarely get looked at by the regular customers. This changes one day when a man comes up holding two of her favourite books among the pile he wants to buy.

He is a charming man and they slowly get to know each other a little better as he becomes a regular customer. Little does she know that this man is one of the drug cartels leaders who have been slowly strangling normal life in the city of Acapulco where they live. Their lives are going to all change dramatically when her husband publishes a in depth profile of him in his newspaper.

That moment changes her and her son’s forever. They are forced to flee from their old lives, her detail have been sent around the criminal network. She stops over night in a hotel and unbeknown to her, someone in the hotel has seen her and has passed her whereabouts on. She realises this in the morning and escapes again, just. She makes up her mind to head to America, where she has a relative that she hopes will be able to shelter her. Her and Luca make it to the bus station and they are finally safely out of Acapulco and on the way to Chilpancingo. To get beyond there would mean that she needs to find a way past the roadblocks between there are Mexico City. She finds that Sebastion has a friend in the city and heads to the church where they worship.

He is stunned by her news and promises to help her; she has a safe place to stay for a few days at least. They come up with a plan to get her safely to Mexico City and from there she is on her own. She hooks up with other migrants who have been travelling up from other countries in central and southern America and starts to make a tentative friendship with a couple of sisters who she meets by the railway line. They teach them the best way to get onto a moving train; jump from a bridge. They have seen too many injured trying to run and climb on. It is a heart-stopping moment the first time they jump…

The girls are from Honduras and they bring with them lots of personal trauma and heartache. They slowly get to know each other and end up sharing their stories. The girls help Lydia and Luca navigate the train networks, helping them not to get caught. All the way north she is still not sure that it isn’t being tracked or followed, though. The sisters have got a coyote to take them across the border when they get to America, Lydia is not sure if they even will make it to the border yet, let alone how they will get across…

I thought parts of this book were fairly well written, Cummings has created a storyline that takes the ride along with the two main characters as they flee from their home town. However, the main issue that I had with the book was that it didn’t feel authentic. Lydia seems to have an awful lot of good fortune, whereas I can imagine that most people heading north through Mexico are being exploited and threatened on a daily basis.

When this was first released it caused a lot of controversies. The author and publishers were accused of cultural appropriation, a number of migrants and Mexicans raised concerns about the book and the accuracies of what actually happens to those heading to the border. A big objection was that the people who have had to live a life fleeing from horrible events until now have never had the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own way. It has also changed some of the ways that the America publisher of this is going to publish books now, including appointing a Latina editor at large. Let’s hope it makes for a lasting change in publishing, so we get to hear the stories of a greater number of people.

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  1. bookmadjo

    Great review. I have this in my tbr but I’ve been very conflicted over reading it because of the authenticity issue. I watched an Oprah interview with the author, together with Latina authors who have failed to gain the same recognition due to nationality or race. Hopefully the discourse will raise the much needed change to own voices literature.

    • Paul

      Thank you, Bookmajo. It did lack an authentic voice, even though it was quite readable. Hopefully, things will change, but we as readers need to demand that the writers who are really underrepresented are given voice in fiction, poetry and non-fiction to tell their stories in their own way.

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