Monday, February 10, 2020

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Pages: 400
Genre: Adult Fiction
Pub. Date: January 21, 2020
Publisher: Flatiron
Source: Library
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.  Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.  Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.  Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to? "

Lydia lives a happy life in Acapulco, Mexico with her husband, her son, and her extended family.  She runs a book shop that is visited by mostly tourists and her husband is a journalist.  Acapulco is changing though. It's no longer a carefree beach town as there are drug cartels whose ominous presence is a major problem for the town.  While working at her bookstore a man enters and buys a few of Lydia's favorite books, which gets them talking.  She comes to find that this man is not only educated, but he's also a good father, and becomes a good friend to Lydia.  As the story progresses, Lydia finds out that this man, Javier, runs the drug cartel in the city. How can this be? He seems so polished and he likes to write poetry for crying out loud! To complicate matters, Lydia's husband is writing a tell-all in the newspaper about Javier, which will put a major target on their backs.  After a horrific event at her niece's quincenera, Lydia finds her and her son, Luca, on a run for their lives.  Lydia and Luca end up as migrants working their way, slowly, towards the United States as they cannot fly and this journey is one that will change their lives forever.  American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a compelling novel about doing whatever it takes to save your child.  While it is a controversial novel, I took all the political comments aside from my review and address the controversy at the end of my review as this book is fiction and should be read as such.

Lydia is a character that many mothers can relate to in American Dirt.  She puts her son first and after her world is turned upside down, she goes into survival mode to save her son.  The fact that Lydia also owns a bookstore is also something I loved and when she meets Javier there, she is hoping to make a friend with similar interests, but her world is turned upside down when she realizes just who he is.

While on her journey, she is put into so many upsetting situations and meets so many interesting people also on their own journey. It opens readers' eyes to why people may flee their country and what is at stake.  This book is in no way political, so I won't even go there, but I will say it does ask readers to empathize with a migrant's plight.

American Dirt is told through flashbacks to various points in Lydia's life where we are first introduced to Javier or memories from when she first met her husband.  It's a very effective way to build the story and flesh out the characters.  While I did like the flashbacks, I wasn't overly sold on the omniscient narration. I thought it was a little strange sometimes how the narration worked throughout, but that was my only complaint.

Now, regarding the much talked about controversy--American Dirt is fiction.  While there are stereotypes in just about any novel, I didn't feel the stereotypes were any more upsetting than other historical novels I read like The Godfather, Lilac Girls, Gone with the Wind, or even a young adult novel that includes a high school jock or a cheerleader.  I think that people's issues with the book should be with the publishing industry and not necessarily the author or the story. I also think American Dirt should be used as a way to promote more "own stories" voices and memoirs about migrants' experiences, just as historical novels do when they share a reading list on a topic the book covers for those who are interested in learning more.

I know that American Dirt got me thinking and I plan on reading The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, which is a memoir about illegally emigrating from Mexico to the United States as I am inspired to learn more. Isn't that the purpose of a good story? Instead of putting people or writers into boxes or specific lanes, let's work together to raise awareness. Essentially, American Dirt has raised people's awareness, so isn't that a good thing? Read in conjunction with an "own voices" memoir or paired with a non-fiction book, would be so effective and I beg to ask.......isn't that the ultimate goal? 

What did you guys think about American Dirt? Did you read it? Please keep your comments constructive as I have received a lot of negative feedback for reading this novel, which isn't productive. Instead of book-shaming someone, shouldn't we be using this book as a platform to discuss bigger issues and also using this book as a stepping stone to talk more about "own voices" stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 


  1. I haven't read this book, and honestly don't plan to (not the type of story I normally gravitate to), but the fact that someone would shame you for reading it is atrocious. Like you said, there are so many bigger and more important conversations that could be happening around a book like this.

    1. Exactly. It's really surprising what is happening with the controversy surrounding this book and how the author can't even go on tour. It's very extreme. Thanks for checking out my review, Michele!

  2. I haven't read this and not sure if I will, but I have been reading a bit about the controversy behind it. I agree, that if this can bring some change to the industry or inspire readers to seek out more (or true) stories, that's always a good thing.

    1. I am so glad to hear you agree. It has definitely inspired me to check out more memoirs and non-fiction texts on the topic. Thanks for visiting, Angela.


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