American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Review by Anna Hollingsworth, 21 January 2020

Let’s face it: anything involving human tragedies, poverty, despair, abuse and crime offers a wealth of material for a novelist of any genre. At the risk of sounding cold-bloodedly utilitarian, the stories of the thousands of migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border every year fit the bill perfectly. Given how headlines in the past few years have documented the plight of Central American migrant caravans and offered updates on Trump’s infamous wall — still waiting to materialise — it is curious how novels on the topic have been largely absent from fiction shelves. Of course, the infamous border has been written about in memoirs and other explorations, so I wouldn’t go as far as the marketing team of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, branding the book as “the first novel to explore the experience of attempting to illegally cross the US-Mexico border”. But American Dirt does tap into something that has gone under the radar for too long, and pulls together an emotionally gripping thriller out of its all too brutal source material.

To say that Cummins cuts to the action would be understatement. In the opening scene, a family celebration turns into bloodshed. Lydia, a bookshop owner in the tourist town of Acapulco, is left with only her eight-year-old son Luca as a drug cartel massacres sixteen members of her family. The reason? Her journalist husband Sebastián’s exposés about drug cartels, their tightening grip of everyday life and ultimately a character study of the leader of the local cartel. With no time to think and no one to trust, Lydia, Luca and the reader with them are thrust into a desperate escape attempt across cartel-controlled Mexico towards el norte and the US border. The pair risk their lives travelling on La Bestia, a freight train, the roof of which is the only travel option for many migrants, all the time while running away from narco lords and migration officials.

The journey is dotted with a cast of characters that offers snapshots into what drives people to attempt the gruelling desert crossing into the US. There are the sisters who escape Honduras and abuse by drug gangs only to be abused more, and there’s the Mexican PhD student studying in the US who forgot to fill in paperwork and was denied re-entry into the country. There’s the perverted ex-gang member running away from the gang, and there’s the mother whose underage children were left living alone north of the border after she was deported after a routine immigration check. What unites the eclectic collection of people is that all of them have left life as they’ve known it behind. Flashbacks create a poignant contrast with the past that was Lydia’s normality only days ago: tourists in the bookshop, Luca’s geography bee and barbecues, but also having to pay protection money to the drug cartel, being unable to dine out, and the ever-present fear because of Sebastián’s work.

American Dirt is a journey into brutal and morally ambiguous territory, and this is where it is at its best. Cummins conjures no rose-tinted view of the world: among the migrants, officials and by-standers, there is both altruism and abuse, and just ordinary people faced with dire circumstances. The narrative doesn’t shy away from violence and viciousness nor does it feast on it; as a migrant falls to his death from La Bestia, the reader would rather turn away, but the train of Cummins’s prose chugs on and there is no option but to keep up. Cummins effectively glues the reader to the book: her clipped style creates suspense, and Lydia and Luca’s devastation and attempts to keep it in check grow out of the pages.

The novel upholds this grip steadily throughout. But the steadiness is where there is a problem: from the massacre at the start to the end, the tempo is unrelentingly fixed with character development restricted to variations of “they did things they didn’t think they could manage”. This creates an unnaturally static feeling to the story that could branch out into richer explorations; it is as if Cummins abandoned the possibility of depth in favour of creating a gripping, yet ultimately a bit too superficial, thriller.

There is one thing that does disrupt the steady pace, and that is Cummins’s habit of sprinkling Spanish words and expressions across the text. The pages are rife with characters piping out sin duda alguna or ni modo, people moving adelante or thinking about their mami or abuela. The aim is undoubtedly to bring Mexican colour to the story, but there’s a limit to how much a text can take before it starts to feel like sombreros and plastic cacti in a fast-food burrito place. That is a border that Cummins should not have crossed.

American Dirt is like the journey it describes: it doesn’t succeed in avoiding all the dangers but its events won’t leave the reader untouched. A thriller with human interest, the novel cuts through the din of news from the border.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt (Tinder, 2020). 978-1472261397, 480pp., hardback.

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