American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
After all that has been said and written about AD, I find that after finishing it last night, I still have more to say. I tried to read with an open mind, although it wasn’t possible to unhear what I’d already heard. Although I found things to admire, I’ll start with my biggest problem--Ms. Cummin's flat-out plagiarism of Luis Alberto Urrea's work.
In a recent NPR interview, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/14/796218804/to-stand-still-is-to-die-a-new-novel-follows-migrants-to-american-dirt Ms. Cummins sounded shocked and humiliated when this plagiarism was pointed out, claiming she hadn’t realized that she had done such a thing, explaining that she had reached out and acknowledged Mr. Urrea in the novel. Indeed, on page 266, Ms. Cummins writes that Lydia knows about Tijuana because Luis Alberto Urrea is one of her favorite writers. But then on the very next page she goes on to recreate his story about a boy dying in El Dompe in Tijuana from his nonfiction book “By the Lake of Sleeping Children,” written after he did years of humanitarian relief work. It would have been easy to describe Lydia’s shock at hearing the same exact story and to again give Mr. Urrea credit, but Ms. Cummins doesn’t do either.
Even worse, that dump has not existed for over for ten years while AD takes place in the present post Trump day. This is white privileged laziness. If the publisher can afford to pay Ms. Cummins a million dollars, they can certainly afford careful fact checking, especially since they chose to print “A Grapes of Wrath for our times” on the cover, right under Oprah’s endorsement. This is no Grapes of Wrath. It is not the Great American novel or the great novel of Las Americas (as Sandra Cisneros describes it.) It is a well written thriller that takes place in a made-up version of Mexico.
Ms. Cummins knows how to build a scene, she effectively uses tension, her chapter are short and constructed to leave you in a point of anxiety where you want to keep reading. Her descriptions of place are effective, especially when the two sisters remember their Honduras home in the cloud forest and when Lydia describes San Miguel de Allende. Ms. Cummins also does a good job of making us feel what is going on inside most of characters heads although I had problems with the two sisters internal dialogue which felt shoehorned at times to explain political and economic influences and didn’t feel like the voices of fourteen or fifteen year old girls. For example, Rebeca remembers “the poverty that drove her father and all the men away to the cities. The advancing threat of the cartels, the want of resources, the ever-present hunger.”
Luca is the hero of the story, a plucky eight-year-old with a very convenient photographic memory of geography and maps and sense of direction. I have never heard of this type of condition, but it certainly proves useful to the story. I agree with Stephen King’s blurb that the story never lets up and with John Grisham endorsement that AD is a page turner. However, Grisham is wrong when he says the novel is “rich in authenticity.” Ms. Cummins gets too many important details wrong, from the barbecue sauce on the chicken in Acapulco (why not mole?) to calling her own mother Abuela, to referring to"the bogeyman" instead of El Coco or even La Llorona.
It was difficult for me to believe that Lydia was naïve enough not to suspect the cartel chief Javier from the beginning, especially once she saw his bodyguards standing outside of her bookstore in the rain. When this supposedly mild-mannered book lover goes outside and tells them to leave, they obey. I also had a hard understanding Lydia’s husband apparent acceptance and understanding of Javier being in love with his wife. I admired Ms. Cummins putting a PhD candidate in the migrant party but it felt like an attempt to diversify the travelers, which otherwise seemed hired from central casting. Tragic character Beto was too much of a cliché for me, as was the villain Lorenzo.
At the end of the novel, Ms. Cummins ties up a few too many loose ends for my taste. An innocent dies, a villain is killed, and the evil force is confronted. I found it unbelievable that the coyote El Chacal (the jackal- could there be a more stereotyped name?) would give one of the sisters his gun and I also didn’t buy Lydia calling Javier from the desert. It’s hard to believe there was cell phone reception and it seemed foolish to reach out to him at this point of the story when she’s risked so much to protect her child.
Lydia’s love of her son Luca comes through, the story is fast paced, and I don’t regret reading it, but there are so many better stories. I’m really looking forward to reading Myriam Gurza’s “Mean” and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s “Children of the Land.”