I’ve had some time to think about this book since my first reading in 2020 and recently as an audiobook. (As a quick aside, the reader, actress Yareli Arizmendi is superb and a pleasure to listen to). I put it on my 2022 best reads list because during the second time around I found it even more impressive. I knew the trajectory of events in the story and could slow down to appreciate its many layers.
A book like this is why fiction can have an impact on how we view and think about subjects we may know about, but never personally encounter. And it is a great discussion starter.
America Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Books 2019)
Let me back up for a moment to give you a bit of introduction to the novel. It is the story of a middle class woman, Lydia, who lives in Acapulco with her husband, Sebastian, young son, Luca, and her extended family. She owns a bookstore and her husband is a well-respected journalist who feels compelled to write about the cartels that are slowly taking over their city.
At her bookstore, Lydia has befriended the jefe of a vicious cartel whose violence and control is slowly paralyzing Acapulco. Lydia and Javier’s friendship has deepened slowly before she realizes who he is. Once she learns he heads this feared cartel, she has difficulty reconciling the two sides of this man.
The book opens with extreme violence. Sebastian has written a feature story about this cartel, Los Jardineros. Neither Sebastian nor Lydia they don’t believe puts them in danger. But Javier, the cartel jefe, reacts for reasons we find out later. Lydia’s family has gathered for her niece’s quinceanera, her fifteenth birthday party, a version of our sweet sixteen. Javier’s men come and kill everyone except Lydia and Luca, who have hidden in the bathroom.
In that one surge of gunfire, Lydia and Luca have lost everything— their family, their way of life, their guideposts. In an instant, they have become migrants.
This act puts Lydia and Luca on the dangerous, improbable journey to El Norte. On the surface, it is an unimaginable story of escape. A woman with no experience with anything remotely like this must learn how to traverse many miles of Mexico, must learn with her young son how to ride the trains, La Bestia, figure out who to trust, how to buy their way out of trouble, and how to outrun Javier’s men who are after her.
But there is more to set this book apart.
Jeanine Cummins, the author has had quite a ride.
Jeanine Cummins, author
At a book signing at Politics and Prose bookstore, Cummins described her journey into first writing about trauma. Reluctant, but urged by her brother, her first book was a memoir about a family tragedy. A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath is the story of a family gathering gone wrong. Her brother and her two cousins were in St. Louis and went out in the evening. The girls were gang raped, murdered, and thrown in the river; her brother was badly beaten and also thrown in the river but he survived. The four men were convicted and sent to death row. Subsequently, the media made it their story rather than the story of the victims and family who were forever changed. Cummins, reluctantly said yes to her brother. And changed that trajectory.
She felt similarly about the story of migrants. She said the focus is political rather than human. The right demonizes migrants as invading mobs and the left portray them as poor people who need to be saved. This was Cummin’s attempt to tell stories of the migrants themselves. To keep the focus where it belongs. To tell personal stories.
For that effort a controversy dusted up about her and the book. Although she was lauded by such literary superstars as Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros. Applauded at first by Oprah who ultimately bent to the criticism, she received a rash of criticism that it was not her story to tell. That it should have been written by a Mexican writer? It is not a perfect story. What is?
But she did her due diligence. She spent five years on research, including time on the ground in the places she described. She interviewed countless people. Not that it matters but if we’re talking ethnicity, she’s half Puerto Rican and Spanish was her first language and although a white man, from another country, she lived with her undocumented husband for ten years. This gave her an inside track, if necessary, to the uncertainty and panic.
There are many ways to tell a story such as this and I hope the critics are doing just that.
What is it we have to say about limiting subject area to ethnicity? Should Styron not have written Sophie’s Choice? Or DeRosnay Sarah’s Key? There are countless examples in our canon. Would they be the same stories if they were written by an ethnically appropriate writer? No. But there is room for all points of view. And hopefully, the publishing world opens its eyes for the need to include all races, religions, sexual preferences, and everything in between in their book lists.
I would suggest that this book, at its core, is about the power of a mother’s love. I think we can all agree that is universal.
I’d love to hear your comments about this post.