A Most Perilous Journey

The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency of the most powerful country in the world sent chills down the spines of many a global citizen. Everyone can already foresee the implications of this unwelcome news. His stern position on the migration crisis confounded many who yearn for that quintessential American Dream. To their neighboring Mexicans, he repeatedly proposed the construction of a physical high wall on the American-Mexican boundary. This is part of his grand policy – “Make America Great Again”. This is despite the fact that Mexicans and other migrants form a bedrock of contemporary American society.

Touching on this seminal and timely subject is American Jeanine Cummins’ latest work, American Dirt. The novel relates the story of Lydia Quixano Perez, a young Mexican woman comfortably living in coastal city of Acapulco in the Mexican state of Guerrero. For a young woman of her age, she has achieved modest success and contentment. She runs her own bookstore, a vocation she enjoys because of her love for literature; and she is married to the love of her life, Sebastian. The couple is blessed with an eight-year old son, Luca.

Lydia’s quotidian existence by the abrupt entry of Javier. Javier is mysterious and has a flair for romance. Because of their shared interest for the published text, Lydia inevitably grew fond of Javier. Behind the amicable facade that Javier projects is a dark secret that was slowly being unmasked by Lydia’s journalist-husband. Sebastian publishes Javier’s profile, exposing him as the kingpin of the drug and crime ring that reigns over Acapulco. What ensues is a consequence beyond Lydia’s imagination.

“Less than two weeks ago, dirt on the floor in her hallway was a thing that could annoy her. It’s unimaginable. The reality of what happened is so much worse than the very worst of her imaginary fears had ever been. But it could be worse still.” ~ Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt 

As guns rained down Sebastian’s family gathering, Lydia and Luca miraculously survived the massacre. Cognizant that the mastermind won’t stop until his revenge comes full circle, mother and son duo were forced to go underground in order to flee Acapulco, escaping the tentacles of Javier’s influences. To achieve safety, Lydia sees only one solution – escape to el norte, to Estados Unidos. The journey, however, is easier said than done. The intricate web woven by Mexico’s drug cartels extend far beyond what Lydia can imagine.

Annually, like Lydia, thousands of Mexicans and other Central Americans pursue this perilous exodus towards the United States. They have different motivations, primordial of which is the promise of convenience and freedom inspired by the proverbial American Dream. The fulfillment of the American Dream means escape from the quagmires of poverty and the oppression that continues to pervade their nations of origin.

The yearning for that American Dream and green card is a story often heard, not just from Central and South Americans but also from other nationalities. In Lydia and Luca’s journey, they also met individuals who were escaping similar fate that they have suffered, the result of the escalating violence that has swept their communities. Central and South American cities are known to be among the most dangerous in the world because of their high crime and murder rates. The glaring homicide statistics make the city where the story originated, Acapulco, consistently rank as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Inspired by stories of people fleeing the deplorable conditions that has beset Central and South America, Cummins carefully painted the exodus. One central feature to this exodus is the La Bestia (“The Beast”), a freight train which migrants board illicitly, not withstanding the accidents and dangers that miscalculations can cause. Several horror stories have echoed throughout the years resulting to the Mexican government building barriers to ensure everyone’s safety. But the human spirit can be quite adamant – if there is a will, there is a way.

“That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.” ~ Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

With brilliant masterstrokes, Cummins managed to capture in vivid and intricate details how the beast slithers its way across Mexico. She also managed to touch on the far-reaching web of corruption that has corroded the Mexican bureaucracy. Lydia was always on her toes lest one of Javier’s henchmen manage to sniff her our or identify her. In one of the most suspenseful turns in the narrative, a group of policemen made a surprise checkpoint in a vast open field the beast train was passing by. Those who cannot pay their way out were deported back to their countries. This is but one of many bleak realities that the migrants deal with.

What propelled the narrative is its upbeat tempo which kept readers at the edge of their seats. Cummins wrapped the narrative with a veil of suspense. It was also rife with a thrilling atmosphere that takes the readers into the La Bestia, into the desert, and into the mountains. This, however, doesn’t mark the harrowing realities that beset the migrants. The narrative was generally engaging but it was bereft of texture. At some points, it was eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The narrative hit the ground running with a bomb of an opening. With the tenterhook that fervently pursued Lydia and Luca, it was easy to overlook the seemingly pretentious atmosphere of melodrama that shrouded the narrative. Cummins used the shock and surprise effect to the hilt in order to place a veil on the narrative, subverting its palpable flaws. On the surface, Lydia and Luca seemed well-developed. However, some of their actions were borne out of stereotypes, particularly that of White American. What floats to the surface is a pastiche of Mexico, rather than a deep and rich tapestry.

Beyond the stereotypes, there is also one gaping hole that Cummins steered clear off. With the current political atmosphere, American politics is deeply embedded and is nearly synonymous to the migration narrative. The American President sounded off stern opposition to the migration of any nationality to the United States. However, discourse on the subject was palpably lacking in the narrative, and if it did, it was ephemeral at best. The migration narrative runs deep. It is a timely and relevant subject. This is not to discount the migration narrative and the difficulties that migrants face but, by failing to project the major influence of one of the role players in the narrative, Cummins is not making a great case for the migrants. 

“He seemed enlightened. But like every drug lord who’s ever risen to such a rank, he was also shrewd, merciless, and ultimately delusional. He was a vicious mass murderer who mistook himself for a gentleman. A thug who fancied himself a poet.” ~ Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Even mere spectators can’t help but feel aghast at the horrible realities of migration. The migration narrative is a tale that must be carefully explored because it is a timely and relevant subject. No one can blame writers like Jeanine Cummins for spawning works inspired by the horrible truths that are gripping South and Central America. The exodus and some of its details – the rapes, the maiming, the raids – are unavoidable truths.

However, American Dirt feels insincere. One of the most important elements of the migration narrative was missing, barely touched on. It turned a potentially explosive narrative into a mundane and disjointed story. Relevant and timely the subject maybe maybe but the overall impact of American Dirt was exponentially reduced by the one missing leg.

Ratings:

45%

Characters (30%) – 12%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 10%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

Had I not been given time to reflect on how I feel about this book, I would have given it a perfect rating. I feel like the text forced me to like it – the melodramatic story, the upbeat pace, and of course, the harrowing plight of migrants. The plight of migrants is heartbreaking and I get it, Cummins did a vast research on the subject. Kudos to her for that. But the more I think about the story and its implications, the more ordinary it starts to sound, even pretentious.

The stereotypes start to surface and what I initially perceived to be a strong narrative started to crumble because of its weak foundations. What is glaring is the lack of connection to contemporary American politics which, I surmise, goes hand and hand with the Mexican/Latin migrant narrative.

Book Specs

Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 378
Genre: Thriller, Suspense

Synopsis

Lydia Quixano Perez 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 form 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?

American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed. It is a literary achievement filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books of our times.

About the Author

Jeanine Cummins was born in Rota, Spain, where her father was stationed. Her father is a member of the US Navy and her mother is nurse.

Cummins spent her childhood in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She majored in English and communications at Towson University, a part of the University System of Maryland. After graduating from university, she moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland where she worked as a bartender. She moved back to the United States in 1997, to start working for Penguin in New York City. She worked in the publishing industry for 10 years before pursuing a full-time career in writing.

In 2004, she published her first work, A Rip in Heaven, a memoir about the attempted murder on his brother and the murder of her two cousins on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri. She followed it up with two novels that touches on Irish history – The Outside Boy (2010) and The Crooked Branch (2013).  Her most successful work to date, American Dirt, was published in 2020.

She currently lives in New York City with her husband and two children.