One of the best-selling fiction books of 2020, and certainly the most controversial, is “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins. It begins on page one with the massacre of an entire middle-class family in Acapulco, Mexico, by drug cartel gunmen. The only survivors are Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her eight-year-old son, Luca. Lydia’s husband was a journalist who had angered the local drug lord. Lydia and Luca are forced to flee and are soon transformed into migrants.
The story follows their flight through Mexico riding freight trains, being robbed by corrupt police officers, outrunning “narcos,” and meeting and befriending other migrants. When they finally arrive in Nogales, Mexico, they must cross the desert by foot at night with the help of a “coyote,” or guide, to arrive in the United States.
“American Dirt” clearly describes the fear and desperation that migrants face trying to cross the border into the United States.
Cummins is also the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Rip in Heaven,” and two other novels, “The Outside Boy,” and “The Crooked Branch.” She notes that it took her seven years to research and write “American Dirt.” Her research included extensive travel on both sides of the border where she visited migrant shelters and orphanages, interviewed humanitarian aid workers, and even volunteered at a migrant soup kitchen. Rather than write another story about the violent world of the narco cartels and law enforcement, Cummins said that she wanted to write about the women and children who manage to triumph over suffering and inconceivable hardships.
The controversy surrounding “American Dirt” is reflected in several negative book reviews which noted the fact that Cummins is not of Mexican descent nor had she personally undergone the experience of migrant peoples. Cummins was also criticized for receiving a seven-figure advance, being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, and having a possible film version in the works.
On the other hand, it should be noted that Cummins’ grandmother is from Puerto Rico and her husband was an undocumented immigrant. Another reviewer felt that many of the Cummins’ critics might be people jealous of her literary success and blind to the human anguish portrayed in Cummins’ novel.
Don Winslow, successful author of “The Cartel Trilogy,” which follows the exploits of DEA agent Art Keller, calls Cummins’ new novel “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” Author John Grisham writes that “American Dirt” is rich in authenticity with a plot that is tight, smart, and unpredictable.
Whatever one may think about the critical controversy around this novel, “American Dirt” gives a popular voice to a story that needs to be told.