REVIEW: Cummins’ ‘American Dirt’ offers up nothing but controversy, confusion

Promotional artwork for ‘American Dirt’ courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

In the author’s note of Jeanne Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel centering around Mexican migrants fleeing cartel violence, Cummins writes that she wished “someone slightly browner than me would write [the book].” Cummins, it seems, is not alone in this sentiment. Since it has been published, American Dirt has received a bombardment of criticism, with many critics taking issue with the surface-deep way Cummins (who identifies as white but has a Puerto Rican grandmother) portrays her characters and the touristy perception she seems to have of Mexico. In all honesty, it’s not hard to see why the book received the onslaught of criticism. Despite Cummins’ research into the background of the book and the occasionally poignant moments scattered throughout the novel, her tiringly excessive writing style and lazy attempts at characterizations force the book to fall short in its effort to humanize Mexican migrants. 

American Dirt follows the story of Lydia Quixano Pérez and her son as they try to escape Mexico’s rampant drug violence. The story begins in the bookstore Lydia runs, where she first meets a handsome and slightly older patron of the establishment. Much to Lydia’s surprise, they share similar tastes in literature and form an inseparable bond that soon creates a conflicting love triangle. Unfortunately, as these things happen so often in real life, this dashing patron turns out to be a kingpin — or jefe — for the dangerous drug cartel that has overtaken the city. Coincidentally, Lydia’s husband Sebastian turns out to be a reporter who covers drug-related crime and, soon after Lydia’s relationship with the kingpin blossoms, publishes an exposé about Los Jardineros, the cartel that the poetry-loving and Irish literature-appreciating kingpin runs. Soon enough, a hitman from the cartel makes an unwelcome appearance at Lydia’s son’s birthday party and massacres the guests, even putting a bullet through Lydia’s son. Against all odds, the son lives and Lydia is determined to escape the danger that their otherwise well-to-do family has found themselves in. She discovers that the quickest way to accomplish this is to make their way to La Bestia, a notoriously dangerous freight train that gives Mexican migrants a pathway to America.

Read all of that again. Now imagine where you might find someone reading that. Maybe a bored passenger flips through it at the airport. Perhaps it’s something you find your mom reading for the next book club meeting. You may even think that James Patterson ghost wrote the book for a little extra cash. Wherever your mind goes, remember that the front cover boldly advertises it as The Next Grapes of Wrath. Suffice to say, this book isn’t the next Great American Novel. In fact, some of the negative feedback the book received can be attributed to the misleading way the publishing house advertised the American Dirt. Advertising another thriller as something revolutionary set readers’ expectations high and knocked them down quickly. 

I think it’s important to recognize that the novel didn’t fail as a result of Cummins’s nationality or skin color, as other critics have claimed. It failed because of her ignorance, to put it bluntly. It is well within the realm of possibility for an author to write outside of their experiences and their own social or racial group. However, to do so successfully, an author must prioritize accuracy over exciting plots, research over imagination, and investigation of underlying social issues over comfortably playing it safe. Even though Cummins interviewed and spent time with Mexican migrants, her hard work is not demonstrated in the novel due to the simple fact that she prioritizes her own romantic visions of what it means to be a migrant over the truth. It’s a mistake that crushes the story and surrounds the novel’s other flaws. 

On many occasions, Cummins claims that the main purpose of the novel is to humanize Mexican migrants to American readers and help detach them from the harmful narratives about them being criminals. While this is a noble pursuit, it is one that is significantly hindered by her sloppily made characters. Lydia and her son, instead of being crafted into real people who experience joy alongside grief, are reduced to characters who live in constant torment and tragedy. In fact, the novel is so chock-full of trauma and sadness and desperation, it can be difficult to connect with the characters. Instead of allowing Lydia and her son to have occasional moments for nostalgia or to even further develop their mother-son relationship, Cummins opts to curate them to be characters who live in a perpetual struggle. As a result, the characters appear as comfortable stereotypes of what people believe the lives of those who live in developing countries to be instead of a vivid portrait of the migrant experience. 

Of course, that isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments where Cummins breathes life into the characters. Lydia, in the midst of chaos and violence, takes a moment to notice her son is in need of a haircut. At other times, she becomes startlingly aware that she is a woman without a country, that her home will never be her home again. These details allow the reader to form a bond with Lydia and gain a deeper understanding that these migrants aren’t just a popular point for debate but breathing people.

Even though Cummins interviewed and spent time with Mexican migrants, her hard work is not demonstrated in the novel due to the simple fact that she prioritizes her own romantic visions of what it means to be a migrant over the truth.

Nevertheless, these moments are too far and few in between to create any sort of lasting impact upon the reader and to successfully create characters with blood flowing through their veins. Instead, Cummins delivers characters that are bland and unbelievable. Despite living in a hostile socio-political climate, these characters are somehow without political opinions or anger. Instead, they echo the same repetitive sentiments about wanting a better life in the sanctuary of America. While this may be true for some migrants, it is also a narrative that assumes migrants aren’t upset to leave their homelands and families and that the country they are seeking refuge in will be completely safe for them. Soon enough, it becomes clear that the novel aims isn’t humanizing Mexican migrants but making the audience comfortable at the expense of the truth.  

While the unbelievable characters hinder Cummins’ message, her writing style acts as distraction from it. As an avid lover of flowery language and someone who only read Victorian novels for a period in her life, I’ve always believed that there has been no amount of description too excessive for me. Amazingly, Cummins tests this belief. In all honesty, as reading the book, I had a dictionary next to me so I could understand half of what Cummins attempts to say in her odd analogies.The descriptions are often complicated and convoluted, forcing the reader to repeat the sentence over and over again until the words lose all meaning. For what is supposed to be an emotional novel that sheds light on the plight of migrants, these confusing bits of analogies and descriptions distract from their situation. For instance, while I was supposed to be focusing on the trauma young women fleeing from cartels endure, I was busy searching up what it means for people’s expressions to be “ranging like a quarrel of sparrows.” Because of this, the Mexican migrants are forced into the background, while Cummins’ peculiar writing style hogs the spotlight. 

Perhaps the importance of American Dirt does not lie in the message that it failed to deliver, but in the controversy it has generated since it was published. The novel forced the literary world — publishers, writers, and critics alike– to join a larger discussion of what it means to be a responsible storyteller and what writers can or should write about. As a result of the book, many Latinx authors have discussed their role and the role of many other people of color in the publishing world and what it means for white authors to gain publicity for writing about others’ experiences. These are difficult things to discuss and grapple with, but it is a discussion that needs to be had. So while American Dirt may not be the next Grapes of Wrath as the quote plastered on its front cover may suggest, it is certainly a novel that sparked an important debate that the literary world needed to face.

After you read American Dirt, you may want to read …

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Promotional artwork for ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ courtesy of Little, Brown, and Company

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian details the life of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr., an aspiring cartoonist who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Wanting to take his destiny into his own hands, he leaves his problematic school on the reservation and attends an all-white public high school, where he’s the only Native American student. In sometimes emotional and often humorous diary entries, Alexis allows the readers to connect with Arnold and understand the cultural isolation that overtakes him in this new setting. Arnold’s experiences are a testament to living in limbo, as he struggles to embrace his roots and venture into bold new beginnings.

Ashita Wagh is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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