TLLB Starred American Dirt Cover

American Dirt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I read this book with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. It’s so gripping, and it’s crying out for a film adaptation.

The novel opens in Acapulco where bookseller Lydia is sheltering her son Luca from the flying bullets of hitmen sent to end their lives. Not just their lives, but theirs and their extended family who have gathered to celebrate a traditional quinceañera. Lydia and Luca survive but are faced with the horror of losing 16 of their family members in an instant. How do you even begin to comprehend that horror? What do you do next, where do you go?

Lydia knows immediately that the killings are a consequence of an article written by her husband Sebabstián. It exposed Javier Cespo Fuentes as the boss of Los Jardineros, the most dangerous cartel in the region. She also knows that it is only a matter of time before Javier realises that she and her son have survived; that she is no longer safe in her own country; and that the only way to guarantee a future for her son, is to flee to the north.
Because of this, there is no time to process the massacre.

Lydia and Luca start to run on page 20 and don’t stop for 429 pages. These 400 pages cover their nail-biting journey from their home on the southwest coast of Mexico, north over 2,500 miles to the US border.
Fearing the omnipresent cartel network, Lydia has no choice but to make the journey underground. And so, they, like thousands of illegal immigrants, make the perilous trek to el Norte through a combination of long, arduous hiking on foot and strapping themselves onto the roof of La Bestia, the freight trains that travel across the border,

Their fate will be entirely decided by a combination of luck and the kindness of strangers. For Lydia to find herself facing a series of life-threatening scenarios so completely removed from her ‘previous’ reality is almost unfathomable. It plays a big part in making this story so engaging. I was fascinated reading the choices she made and the extremes she went to to survive. It has to be impossible for any reader not to question what they would do if the unthinkable happened to them.

The narrative alternates between the inner torment of utter heartbreak and the external trauma of undertaking such a treacherous journey. Not only are they vulnerable to Los Jardineros, but they must also contend with the constant threat of violence, robbery, and corrupt immigration authorities all while keeping the ever-threatening crippling tsunami of grief at bay.

Little Luca determined to be brave for his Mami that kept tugging on my heartstrings throughout. He, along with plucky and tragic Beto, evoke the plight of thousands of innocent and desperate children who attempt the same journey in real life. This coupled with the harrowing experience of sisters Soledad and Rebeca make for a difficult read at times.

For me, two things jarred a little. The first was the improbable friendship formed between Lydia and Javier in the first place. How does the seemingly sensible, bookshop-owning, married mother-of-one strike up such a deep connection with a man without realising he is a major player in the city’s gang warfare.

The second is Luca’s character. There are lots of heartbreaking moments where Cummins describes him struggling to compartmentalise his grief well. Overall though, he’s a bit too-good-to-be-true. His peaceful acceptance of their fate and his seemingly abundant graciousness when he recognises others less fortunate than him seem at odds with his tender years.

It’s worth mentioning that Cummins has received a lot of criticism when the book was published. Some critics felt it was inappropriate for her to tell the story of a Mexican immigrant when she is a white North American woman. Many felt it simplified the complexities of illegal immigration, or that it conveniently avoided discussing the related politics.

These are the same factors that make it such an “easy” read and almost certainly secured its commercial success.

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