Our book club read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins this month. If you are unfamiliar, it is the story of a Mexican immigrant and her journey to try to get to the United States. There is also a big controversy that has somewhat overshadowed the book itself. We discussed both at our book club gathering last night.
The story tells of a woman whose entire family is shot and killed at a backyard BBQ by a cartel. Only she and her eight-year-old son survive, and she decides to somehow get both of them from Acapulco to the US border. In truth, she has no choice but to do this. The rest of the book details this trip and the extreme hazards along the way.
I was unfamiliar with so many things recounted here. I knew little about the cartels that are so prevalent in Mexico. (They extend to the US, also.) I did not know that Acapulco was no longer the tourist destination of my youth, but a very dangerous city. I did not know about The Beast, a freight train that some migrants climb atop to ride as part of their perilous journey north. I did not know about the cloud forests of Honduras. I learned more about the trafficking and robbery that occurs along these migrant routes. I also learned about the brave Mexican people and organizations that offer lodging, food, and other assistance to the migrants as they travel.
I have never imagined what a migrant journey would be like.
It is an interesting time to read and discuss this book, considering all that is currently going on at the US/Mexico border. Reading the book definitely provided a view into another side of the migrant issue. I came away with a better understanding of what migrants might have to go through, and I have more compassion for these individuals and their life situations.
The controversy is over the author, a white woman, telling the story of a life she has never lived.
Haven’t authors frequently done that in countless other books? No book is perfect. Each is always a reflection of the author and his/her perspectives and opinions.
The author says she did five years of research, as authors often do. She makes statements in her author’s note declaring that perhaps someone closer to this life could/should have written the book, but ends that thought with: “But then, I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began.”
Many Latinx authors have denounced the book, stating that it is full of negative stereotypes. Some have called it “trauma porn.” One immigrant said that it was not written for her, but “for white people by a white woman.” One white male author, who wrote about Iranian immigrants several years ago (The House of Sand and Fog), said he was sure his book, well-received at the time, couldn’t be published in today’s society.
If there is an evil in this, I believe it is the publishing industry. It is a profit-seeking enterprise, always in the business of making money. This book received a large advance and tons of pre-publication publicity and endorsements (until the death threats started and the book tour was cancelled). No wonder other authors resented the focus here and not on their own works.
My opinion? This is a well-written book, with great place descriptions, exciting action, and well-developed characters and relationships. It had the ability to draw me in, make me think, and at times it broke my heart. I came away with deeper understandings and increased compassion. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience, and I would highly recommend it.