Tuesday, February 25, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I've taken awhile to write a review of this novel, hoping the hubbub would die down and people would read it first without being influenced by the controversy surrounding the book. Everyone who had read the advanced copies of the novel commented on how powerful yet painful the book is, so I was eager to hear Cummings read at Parnassus Books the week the book was launched, and I was just as eager to read her novel.

Jeanine Cummins pulls in readers from the opening pages, when her two main characters, a young boy Luca and his mother Lydia in Acapulco are able to hide and survive a mass killing of 16 members of their family at a birthday cookout, obviously the work of members of a notorious drug cartel. The hit is undoubtedly a response to an expose of the particular cartel, Los Jardinieres, written by Lydia's journalist husband Sebastian.

Immediately after their escape, aware that many of the local law enforcement officers are in the pocket of the cartel, Lydia takes Luca and flees toward the U. S. border. What follows is a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, bone-weary journey, as Lydia and Luca join others making that same route. Along the way, they are shadowed by a young man bearing a tattoo marking him as a member of the Los Jardinieres who has killed. While he tells her he is leaving to escape that life, his tendency to keep appearing leaves her more than wary.

Two of the most sympathetic characters they encounter are young sisters, one of them strikingly beautiful, who have fled to escape a controlling relationship in which the elder sister became entangled that now threatens to control the younger sister too. They are able to show the mother and son the ropes as they slip onto trains bound north, and they become more like family to Luca and Lydia.

Ignoring the inflammatory buzz about the book, I will say that American Dirt has the power to engage readers with neutral or negative attitudes about immigrants heading to the border. Certainly she shows the characters they encounter as individuals as varied as any one would expect to meet under such circumstances. In some towns, they find themselves fed and cared for, and in others, they have to lie low, avoiding any attention that might connect them to Javier, the cartel leader.

I'm wondering if Atticus Finch would fault Cummins with attempting, after much research, to portray as human beings characters that are often wrongly stereotyped.

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