Okay… I’m going to jump right into the book review for Blanche’s Book Club’s latest read, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins because there’s so much to unpack. Here’s the book’s description from the publisher’s website:
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.
Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.
Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed. It is a literary achievement filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books for our times.
Already being hailed as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times” and “a new American classic,” Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt is a rare exploration into the inner hearts of people willing to sacrifice everything for a glimmer of hope.
I originally was not going to read this book, but it came up on my Goodreads because someone I follow read it. It was available on the Libby app, so I figured why not? I’ve said it here before that I’ll pretty much read anything, but this is not something I normally would gravitate toward.
So, I read the book in a single day. It’s 500+ pages, so not a ridiculously long book, but not a quick read. I thought it was really suspenseful and I kept wanting to know what would happen next.
However, all the way through the book, I was curious about the author’s background — I knew she was white because I saw her photo in the back of the book. I had heard a tiny, TINY bit of controversy about this book but wanted to read it first before I looked into any of the news surrounding it.
When I finished reading the book, I felt like it was much different than I expected and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever read. I also felt like it was written to become a movie, and once I dove into the controversy about the book, I see it is already being made into a movie.
I set the book aside and vowed to look into the controversy surrounding it, and it was undeniable given the current conversations happening in our country. I saw some of the “bookish” people I follow on Instagram talking about “American Dirt” and the issues surrounding it, so I reached out to a few of them and asked where I could get more information.
I was directed toward an episode of NPR Latino, “Digging into American Dirt” from January 29, 2020. The episode was a big help in understanding how the book is viewed by Latino and Mexican authors, and Jeanine Cummins, too.
From all that I’ve read and heard now, there’s several problems with “American Dirt”, including some stereotypes and incorrect details about the culture.
There’s also the issue of the whopping paycheck Cummins got — seven figures — while the publishing industry often shuts out the voices of Mexican, Latino and Chicano authors. Of course, this is not Cummins’ fault, but it is a glaring problem that certain authors cannot share the stories they have.
The main issue, I think, is also that the book was presented as very political, as it was written right after the 2016 election and even mentions Trump, when it’s fiction, and maybe it should have been marketed as a romance thriller.
In the NPR podcast, Cummins said she didn’t become a writer to “make money”, but as we know now, white authors can make a decent paycheck. She said she traveled to Mexico several times for research for the book, which is where her story begins.
So… I don’t have any real conclusions here. This is all-around problematic and also just disappointing. On the one hand, I really enjoyed this book and how it was written. On the other hand, I don’t want to support someone sharing an incorrect version of a story of hardship that so many have survived.
I cannot say i regret read it, because it made me realize that I’ve never read anything about crossing the border or Mexican culture, so I wouldn’t have been able to point out consistencies or stereotypes in the text.
Perhaps this book and the current climate will continue to shine a light on the problems in the publishing industry and more diverse authors can have better opportunities to share their voices and make comparable money.
If you’ve read “American Dirt” I would love to hear what you think! The next read from Blanche’s Book Club is “Tweet Cute” by Emma Lorde.
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