American Dirt: Book Review and Controversy Analysis

Book Review, Diversity, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Ross Sempek

Now that the dust has settled ever so slightly, we can take a step back to appreciate the quagmire that was the rollout of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I have to say, I bought the book because of the hullabaloo, but first I needed to read it despite the noise.

But let’s start with the cover…

White and blue book cover, American Dirt

The hummingbird is an Aztec motif, used to represent the god Huitzilopochtli and is often adopted as a symbol for migrants, as the god led his people to the land that is now Mexico. This iconography manifests in many ways, one of which is tile-work — a grid of barbed wire that spans the page is a nod to this artistic incarnation.

Don Winslow’s Grapes of Wrath comparison stares you right in the face, and it doesn’t land only because Steinbeck is an unfair invocation. The truthiness of this blurb contributes to the controversy because it sets you up for epic literature but what you get is a decent narrative. For me it’d be like saying, I dunno, that Ernest Cline’s Armada was a Snow Crash for our times. It’s click-bait copy and it got me to buy the book. So let’s open it…

The opened book presents a borderless map of what would otherwise be the southern US, Mexico, and parts of Central America. Another apt symbol that sets an apolitical backdrop for the human stories within. A more ominous feature of the map is its combined use of English and Spanish. The mixture is ham-handed and portends the wince-inducing syntax that (thankfully) is mostly concentrated within the first third of the book.

And we’re reading…

The book hits the ground running. A mother and her son, Lydia and Luca, hide in a shower in the aftermath of her family’s assassination by the drug cartel, Los Jardineros. In addition to cousins and uncles, young and old, Lydia and Luca lost a husband and father. I was arrested by their trauma, and immediately I felt for these two. But Lydia has no time to grieve, so neither does the reader, and a frantic momentum continues; periodically broken up by flashbacks of Lydia’s husband, Sebastian — a journalist whose work critical of the cartel would become his undoing.

The heavy peppering of italicized Spanish words, often paired with their nearby English translation, can read like a bilingual board book. Now I’d rather look up an unknown word, or infer it from context, but that’s just me. I can respect the taste for a seamless reading experience, but in this case it comes at the expense of the fourth wall cracking from pockmarks of disengaging syntax. Even Tom Clancy gives his reader credit in this regard. In addition to this, some of the narrative beats feel too deus ex machina: the wad of cash found under Lydia’s grandma’s mattress that makes egress seamless, her grandma’s bank card where there awaits even more money, Luca’s “perfect” sense of direction and encyclopedic knowledge of the cities on their itinerary. There’s not much explanation for these convenient plot points, and this is easy to hide within the book’s design. Since we join Lydia as she panics to flee, there’s no time to get into details, and by the time the reader gets some breathing room said details become irrelevant compared to the need to survive and keep moving.

Considering the linguistic gaffes, dubious plot points, campy execution, Cummins’ massive payday and what can be perceived as crocodile tears in her author’s note, I can see why so many people didn’t like this book. In fact some of the early reviews were downright incendiary. The fiery tones of Myriam Gurba and Parul Sehgal’s reviews makes me feel as if they made up their mind about the story before even finishing it. I commiserate with some of their qualms but to me they don’t overshadow the novel as a whole. His conclusion illustrates this perfectly – with a linguistic wave of the hand, he dismisses the legitimately positive aspects of Cummins’ novel. Namely that it is “determinedly apolitical.” I hear the snark inherent within this recognition, but I believe that narratives can transcend politics, and I think that was exactly Cummins’ intention (remember the borderless map?). Why add an ephemeral political slant to the timeless narrative of immigrants? Are people upset because they expected an explicit censure of Trump? That subtext was loud and clear. I don’t see why that wasn’t good enough.

In the other review Gurba isn’t content at tearing down the merits of the book, but intends to throw a barb at its intended readership, too. “Cummins reveals the color of her intended audience: white.” Since when is this a crime? And if I’m to believe the basic tenets of my EDI training, people who come from privilege (read: white) are precisely the appropriate audience to be reached. What’s more, Gurba insults Cummins’ family’s trauma by invoking the words of a murdered Mexican migrant to one-up her on the true-crime memoir chops.This utterly unnecessary addition speaks to how quickly this discussion lost its tenor of reason and went off the rails into the mire of vituperation.

So in judging the piece on its merits as a novel, I found that it was pretty OK. It achieved what it set out to do, and while some aspects of Lydia’s story are admittedly incredulous, it’s a page-turner infused with enough loss to make the good ending feel earned.

So what’s this all about? Well it’s not about any one thing, rather it’s the holism of all combined facets. But since we’re here for intellectual freedom, let’s look at it through that lens. In this regard the core of the controversy is surrounded by questions posed in the Alt.Latino NPR piece “Who can write about certain ethnicities?” “What’s off-limits for authors of fiction?” My short answers to those questions, in order, are A) anyone, and B) nothing. To be sure, I feel that authors should want to produce something meaningful, not just something controversial for controversy’s sake. Let’s save the trolls for Twitter. But I feel that no one should hesitate to write something because of the potential for backlash. Telling meaningful stories involves risk. Another side to the criticism spoken here is the concept of authenticity. The interviewees in this program (one of which didn’t even read the book) derided the lack of authenticity informed by the shallowness of her research. Now I don’t know the details of Cummins’ studies, but five years is enough for a master’s thesis – how is this insufficient? How is this not deep? The fact that the product of research doesn’t reflect how you would have done things is not a fair critique of the book.

We’re being unreasonable once we expect authors, who tell stories based on a unique vision, to fully encompass and fairly represent the expectations of all readers. In fact, one of the critiques of American Dirt by one of its most vocal detractors, Esmeralda Bermudez, was that “I wanted to see myself in this book.” Sorry, but that’s not a fair critique of any book. It’s a fine expectation, but you can’t reasonably fault the author for missing the mark unless they’re writing your biography. I understand where Bermudez is coming from – She’s a journalist who has covered American immigration over 17 years. And who, in her nearly two decades of reporting, has never met anyone like Lydia. OK that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean migrants like Lydia don’t exist. And Lydia, while being the focus of the narrative, was not the only migrant whose story was told by Cummins. Did Bermudez completely skim over the ancillary characters of the book? A deeper consideration of these people might bring you closer to your personal ideation of the migrant experience. No population is monolithic, and Cummins makes sure to communicate this throughout.

This singular golden narrative does not, and will never exist, so readers need to take it upon themselves to seek out other material. The act of reading needs to be additive, and demanding that work of fiction be sidelined will only amplify its presence in the zeitgeist. So in that spirit I’ll share this recommended reading list.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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