Controversial choice for Oprah's Book Club, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a tense page-turner exposing the plight of migrants crossing the Mexico-US border
A great summer read, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has been both praised and villified, but it is still a gripping thriller.
American Dirt raises awareness of the issue of thousands of migrants attempting to get across the Mexico-US border on a daily basis, albeit in a sensational and ultimately, in the US at least, controversial way.
I’ll come back to the controversy later.
If you like a bit of tension, then American Dirt gives it to you in bucket loads – from the opening scene of a family massacre to the nail-biting moments as a mother and her son make their way across Mexico – there is barely a chance to catch breath.
Lydia will protect her son Luca at all costs from the drug baron who is hunting them down. You are willing her on as she faces a series of obstacles, including having to take the decision to jump onto a moving train – La Bestia – and trusting her son to manage the same.
It’s another tense moment in a book which seeks to expose the desperate measures to which some people are driven, some of whom we meet and get to know along the way. But Lydia is not undertaking this journey because of extreme poverty, she is not your average migrant looking for a better life.
Before she had to flee, she ran a bookshop, her husband was a noted journalist and they lived a comfortable life. One of the regular customers to her shop was Javier, who engaged her in intellectual conversation. Unfortunately, Javier is also in charge of a drug cartel. The story that plays out between them is another layer within the book and ultimately drives the action.
During her escape with her son, Lydia discovers a lot about herself, her own courage and that of her son, as well as about others who risk their lives to reach the US.
It is also an education for the reader – for this one at least. I really had no idea how vast the terrain is that needs to be crossed to get to the US and how dangerous the various methods are, but this is where the controversy comes in.
In the US, American Dirt went from hero to zero within a very short space of time when it was published in 2020.
The publishers promoted it with a great flourish, the film rights were snapped up (it will make a great edge-of-your-seat movie) and Oprah selected it for her book club.
Unfortunately this exposure also highlighted the fact that the author was not Mexican and the literati jumped on it as a typical example of white authors appropriating other culture's issues to their own end.
It got very messy, but ultimately the book stands up as a real page-turner and maybe it doesn’t give as gritty a picture of the migrant plight as some would like, but it made me want to go and find out more, which is surely some way to understanding the situation.
It’s not a perfect book, but it is a cracking read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.