Despite reading a lot of books every year, there are only a rare few that actually stick with me for a long time – only a few that truly impact the way I think about the world. “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins is a heartwrenching and depressing read, but because of its brutal honesty and suspenseful vibe, it was still a book that I enjoyed immensely.
The story centers around Lydia and her son, Luca, who end up needing to flee their home in Acapulco, Mexico because of a horrific act of violence from the local cartel. Their lives become centered around the sole goal of making it to el norte and simply surviving their surroundings. Cummins describes their journey with an incredible openness, sharing all of the indignities and dangers they experience on the run. Instead of simply writing of the terror of their trip, Cummins also injects onto the page the fierce love and devotion between both mother and son and the companions they end up becoming attached to during the trip. This creates a frenetic, desperate energy on every page – the reader fully grasps the gravity and danger of the situation, in the end, establishing a theme of what each of us is willing to do in order to protect our loved ones.
Although the word I kept thinking of was misery when reading this novel, it also felt strangely like a privilege to be getting a firsthand (albeit fictional) account of the insanely difficult challenge that immigrants face trying to escape their homeland and make their way into the US. I have never experienced the many complex emotions and thoughts that must go through the heads of these people, who so valiantly decide that the potential promise of eventual safety is worth the incredible risks they face during the journey. They grapple with the risk of deportation right back to the country they’re terrified of and, in way too many cases, the possibility of death every minute that they travel. Cummins gave me the biggest gift by allowing me to fully put myself into these people’s shoes. I feel an intense, growing compassion for the migrants who make it into the US only to be treated so abusively by our government. If only all of us could imagine what horrors they’ve witnessed that have led them to make the trek into our country.
Cummins’ story is, of course, a hard read. There were times when I needed to take a break from the intensity of the story. But that just let me know that the book simply felt so realistic that I became wrapped up in the characters and their plight. Because of the importance of this story and her beautiful language, I wish this book would be required reading in schools. There is so much we can learn by getting inside access into worlds so different from our own. Just the author’s note alone gave me a different, valuable perspective that I didn’t have before I began the novel. And isn’t that the whole point of reading in the end?
*Free ARC provided by Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest review*