“American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. Regardless of your political persuasion, I believe it is a must-read for those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the United States. Personally, it opened my eyes to the struggles of immigrants and the many sacrifices they make to pursue safer lives in America, which led me to re-think some of my hardline attitudes about immigration.
I read an advanced reader copy of “American Dirt” in November 2019. The first page starts off with a literal bang and every page thereafter is so full of tension that I almost read it in one night. Early reviewers also praised the book, so when it was officially released in January, I was shocked to see some Latino writers accusing Cummins of not suffering the real immigrant experience. Whatever her personal experience, Cummins’ book is clearly well-researched and, for this reason, I believe it offers valuable insight into one of the most important issues of our time.
Lydia Quixano Pérez is the protagonist in Cummins’ novel. She owns a bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico, where she lives with her son, Luca, and her husband, Sebastián, who is an investigative journalist reporting on the drug cartels.
One day, a man enters Lydia’s bookstore and begins to browse. He eventually approaches the register with some books he would like to buy—two of which happen to be Lydia’s favorites. Javier is charming and intelligent, and the two of them strike up a friendship. But, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the leader of the drug cartel that has just taken over her city. When Lydia’s husband publishes an exposé of Javier, their lives take a devastating turn.
Within the first few pages, during a Sunday afternoon family barbeque held in honor of Lydia’s niece, the cartel decides to take revenge. From inside the house, Lydia hears shots fired from a machine gun, peeks out the window, then hides in the shower with Luca. What she finds when she emerges leaves her heartbroken and haunted. She begins to seek justice and protection, but quickly learns that the local police are being paid off by the cartel. Unable to access her bank accounts for fear of being found, Lydia falls from solidly middle-class to forlorn poverty in one day. A distant relative in Colorado provides the only hope of escape, so Lydia and Luca devise a plan to reach the border via the infamous La Bestia freight train. But, the cartel has eyes and ears everywhere…
The story is gut wrenchingly sad at times. As Lydia and Luca flee Acapulco, they encounter an eclectic array of characters who, like them, all seem to be running away from something. From the colossal opening chapter to the epilogue, “American Dirt” is well-deserving of its initial praise. In Stephen King’s words, “[It is] an extraordinary piece of work. A perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. The prose is immaculate and the story never lets up.”
Reviewer Cheryl Bazzoui is a retired registered nurse and an author from Bradford. She writes under the pen name Ann McCauley.