Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Tinder Press, 2020. First published in the USA 2019
Before I write about this novel, I’d just like to mention some flowers that are blooming happily in our front garden. They have pretty little pink and white petals, but it’s their scent that’s most notable. It’s a cross between vanilla and coconut. The fragrance wafts over us when we sit outside: like being next to an ice-cream factory.
My sister-in-law passed American Dirt on to Mrs TD, who recommended it to me when she’d finished it. I found it almost painful to read, as the subject is so harrowing, but it’s compelling.
It begins with a massacre in Acapulco, Mexico – sixteen members of the Pérez family who’d gathered for a birthday party are murdered by cartel gangsters. It’s a reprisal for the newspaper articles about the enigmatic cartel jefe written by Lydia Pérez’s journalist husband. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been bribed or threatened into complicity with the cartel’s vicious hold on the city.
Lydia and her eight-year-old son are the only survivors. She knows the killers will come after them, so she has to take off. She and young Luca join the hordes of migrantes heading north from all parts of central America for the USA and comparative safety. They are fleeing from the murderous cartels and poverty.
The novel traces Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey across Mexico: much of the time they walk, but they also have to learn how to leap aboard the Bestia – the freight train that heads north.
Along the way they witness some terrible things. They also encounter the kindness of strangers, and the bonds of love that survive even during the most hellish of experiences. If it weren’t for these humane moments the novel would be unbearable.
I heard the author interviewed on a radio book programme recently. She was asked about the criticism that had been levelled against her for a kind of cultural appropriation; she’s not of Mexican heritage. In a note at the end of the novel she explains why she felt it incumbent on her to research this migrant crisis and write about it.
In 2017, when she was finishing the novel, a migrant died on the US-Mexican border every twenty-one hours. Many more simply disappear. There were forty thousand people reported missing across Mexico at the time of writing, and mass graves are regularly found. ‘Mexico was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist’. No wonder so many ordinary people like Lydia and her little boy risk their lives to get away from such an awful situation.
Of course I’d heard news stories about the migrants, and felt sympathy for them. Then came the punitive, vindictive policies of the current US president and his crazed obsession with his infamous Wall.
One of the most moving moments in the narrative comes when Lydia recalls listening to those same reports on the radio as she cooked the family’s evening meal. As we all do, she pauses and thinks how terrible it is that human beings have to endure such hardship and suffering; Lydia then realises she’s out of garlic, and her sympathy is forgotten as she wonders how to cope with this minor domestic crisis.
As we fret about Covid, it’s sobering to read this searing story about the cruelty humans are capable of displaying, and heartening to be reminded that even in the worst possible environments, we’re also capable of generosity and loving kindness.
Every one of those migrants has a heartbreaking story like Lydia’s. They’re not the rapists, murderers and drug dealers that they’re depicted as by this heartless president. I think Jeanine Cummins has done us all a service in telling this story.