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‘American Dirt’ Now That the Dust Has Settled

Though the bluster has asserted the opposite, Jeanine Cummins' prose in American Dirt washes away the gore and grime to show the human faces that make up the migrant crisis of the Western Hemisphere.

American Dirt
Jeanine Cummins
Flatiron Books
January 2020

Jeanine Cummin‘s third novel American Dirt opens with guns blazing. Acapulcan bookstore owner, Lydia, shelters her eight-year-old son Luca in the shower stall of their bathroom as machine-gun toting hitmen from Los Jardineros cartel slaughter 16 of their family members gathered for their niece’s quinceañera or 15th birthday.

As los sicarios retreat and the perfunctory investigations of the inept police begin, Lydia, Luca, and readers are left to wonder the motive for the heinous attack. Was it something her now-dead husband, unflinching journalist Sebastián, had published? Was it Lydia’s rebuff of her intimate friend, Javier, after his identity as the regional drug lord was unveiled?

Though chance has spared mother-and-son from the barrage of bullets, the cartel is stretching its vast tendrils through the once peaceful resort town in hopes to snare them. Lydia and Luca must rally their wit and remaining strength in a meandering flight that morphs into the infamously treacherous journey to
el norte.

In their embarkment from their comfortable middle-class lifestyle, the two enter the migrant crisis of the Western Hemisphere. Guided by her imagination and voluminous research, Cummins’ steely prose delivers humanizing depictions of the major players involved: the members of Mexico’s shrinking bourgeois, the
campesinos, the coyote, the low-level narco, la migra, the gawking gringos, borderland vigilantes, and even the drug lord at the root of the problem.

While media outlets and politicians caricaturize or overlook members of these groups, Cummins uncovers complexities in her characters and fathoms the unfathomable devastation they endure while questing for a better life on American soil. In doing so, Cummins depicts the competition between instinct and emotion that arises in a desperate escape, as well as the bonds between strangers that can either cauterize or infect recent wounds.


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As the pair flee from the site of their family’s massacre, Lydia and Luca aren’t afforded the time needed for normal grief. Anyone who spots them could be a stool pigeon for the cartel. In the ensuing hours of tiptoeing in daylight and dashing in darkness, Lydia and Luca experience a tug-of-war between instincts of survival and their psychological need to process trauma.

Luca, for example, wears his slain father’s red ball cap. Though the cap’s eye-catching color makes him a target, he prefers to keep it on to absorb the fading scents of the man who meant so much to him.

In contrast, Lydia “fights at every moment against the scream that pulses inside her like a living thing. It stretches and kicks in her gut like Luca did when he was a baby in there. With tremendous self-control, she strangles and suppresses it” (20).

Even when lyrical, Cummins sentences are quick, effective, and pregnant with meaning. Lydia is described as aborting her emotions, as they would draw attention to her. But the description adds to the motif of failed pregnancies that pangs throughout the novel.

Despite their predicament, Lydia and Luca must interact with others to ensure their survival. It’s in these small moments of tension that occur, mostly inside her characters, where Cummins displays her patience and grit. Though there are plenty of high-octane situations in the novel, Cummins proves that for people on the lamb, the pedestrian moments can be most harrowing—repairing a blister, withdrawing cash, a trip to the grocery store, or finding a place to pee.

A balm comes to Lydia in the form of migrant women she meets, the most notable being a pair of Honduran sisters. The older sister, Soledad, is described this way:

The girl is so beautiful she seems almost to glow, more colorful than the landscape in which she sits. The dingy gray of the concrete overpass, the pebble brown of the tracks and the earth, the faded blue of her baggy jeans, the dirty white of her oversized T-shirt, the bleached arc of the sky, it all recedes behind her. Her presence is a vivid throb of color that deflates everything else around her. An accident of biology. A living miracle of splendor. It’s a real problem (132).

Just as expression of their raw emotions draws unwanted attention, women’s beauty makes them targets for exploitation from the throngs of bad actors they encounter. Lydia bonds with Soledad over this. Through their journey, the younger, semi-literate Soledad comes to fill the gap left by Lydia’s beloved niece, gunned down at her own quinceañera. Though Cummins opts for realism as opposed to anything magical, the spirit world occasionally whispers comforts to the characters through pangs of conscience and coincidence.

As the gentle, beloved men in these women’s lives have been wrenched from them, a sisterhood of grief forms:

Soledad catches Lydia’s eye across the top of Luca’s head, and some byway of recognition darts between them. They perceive in each other the unspoken trauma they’ve both endured, their reasons for being here. It’s as subtle and significant as a heartbeat (152).

Along the way, other unlikely candidates emerge and join this sisterhood—a bank teller, a nurse, a middle-class deportee. Despite class-differences, all have been victims of rape, family separation, loss. All are also getting the sense that el norte isn’t all its cracked up to be.

American Dirt covers similar territory as José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), which depicts a pandemic that reshapes norms and basic relationships. But that novel’s genius is in its allegorical removal from specific time and place, which made it difficult for critics to claim he wasn’t qualified to write it.

Cummins as a contemporary realist doesn’t have that luxury. Critics target the obvious: Cummins’ ethnicity. To be clear, Cummins is of Puerto Rican descent and married to an immigrant and she’s experienced the violent deaths of family members. Despite all this, Cummins as any form of artist would have as much potential to tell this story as anyone else. In her afterword, Cummins comments on how no group alone can claim “American” as an identity, as the whole Western Hemisphere is given that geographical designation. But neither can anyone group monopolize the powers of the imagination, the chief power being to instill empathy in readers. The dozens of Latinx writers and thinkers who helped Cummins prepare the manuscript apparently agree.

Now that the gunpowder has dispersed from its initial critical reception, perhaps the work’s vulnerabilities can be discussed with some measure of objectivity.

The Spanish phrases that pepper the work add flavor. It’s no more jarring than when done by Francisco Jiménez or any number of other Latinx writers writing in English, not to mention borderland writers like Cormac McCarthy. In the lauded Border Trilogy, McCarthy unapologetically weaves in Spanish without context cues. It could be argued Cummins’ use of Spanish is more inclusive and less elitist than McCarthy.

Since American Dirt operates in the mode of literary realism, the issue of believability arises in one or two places. Most notably in the inciting relationship between Lydia and Javier—the drug lord operating the ruthless cartel, Los Jardineros (the Gardeners). Before her family is massacred, Lydia is a bookstore owner and Javier appears one day as a casual patron, his identity concealed. The two bond over a pair of offbeat gringo novels and become friends. Though this situation tags Lydia with interesting culpability in her family’s downfall, it’s somewhat farfetched.

Of course, it’s convenient for the novelist to have her protagonist work in a bookstore, but might it have been more thematic to have her own a flower shop instead? More importantly, Javier, el jefe who orders gruesome executions with little provocation, never gives a hint of violence in-scene. Instead, he’s a calm, dapper dilettante. Lydia, a sophisticated woman, never questions his equanimity in what’s become a war zone.

Despite this rub, the relationship between Lydia and Javier is well-executed throughout the novel. Lydia’s character arc is a fight for her and her son’s freedom independent of Javier’s vengeance or beneficence. Through this struggle, Lydia sacrifices in surprising ways for her son and her road-sisters in their shared trail of sorrow.

Another potential weak point could be the novel’s third person, omniscient perspective, which can zoom in and out of multiple characters’ points of view. Though it’s long been in vogue for literary fiction, there are paragraphs in American Dirt than can read like an exposé.

Ultimately, it’s this third person perspective that allows Cummins to capture the complexities of each character and situation. For example, Cummins shows the dynamics of race within Latin American countries. The two Honduran sisters are indigenous and estranged even from other Hondurans. Through the diversity in the novel’s perspectives, Cummins provides macro commentary on the situation and deals directly with the flaws of Mexico’s northern neighbor—the high-minded but hollow faith of the estadounidenses (United States-ians) and the baleful ignorance of its caudillo (strong man) President.

Through the novel’s omniscient narrator’s descriptions of the cathedrals, plazas, and vistas her characters pass through, Cummins creates a kind of travelogue in disguise. She renders snapshots of the beautiful places in Mexico many norteños are too scared to visit. While doing this, Cummins asks heart-stopping questions. In a fight for our lives, when societal structures have crumbled to corruption, who can we trust? What do we divulge and to whom? How much are we willing to risk and when? Through her probing, Cummins makes an unknown situation more knowable, and more American.

Though her perspective is sweeping, it’s worth noting that Cummins is just one novelist. She can’t be expected to capture each heart-rendering story in a continental migration. The teeth-gnashing that has come out against American Dirt has an important truth behind it that should be heeded by publishers and readers. A panoply of writers is needed to capture the many facets of this current event of Central American migration—a dark diamond that can reflect the best and worst of humanity.