© 2020 Jeanine Cummins
It was the garden party from hell. One moment, Lydia Pérez was enjoying her niece’s quinceañera; the next, she and her son Luca were huddling in the shower, listening as their family was butchered by drug traffickers out to make a point. Unable to trust the police, hunted for by a powerful mobster, and afraid for their lives Lydia has no choice but to flee, joining thousands more on a northward journey in hopes of creating a better life el norte. A harrowing but timely novel, American Dirt puts human faces to issues many readers may only encounter in the news.
Lydia and her fellow migrants face not only the inherent dangers of their path — the lethal train jumps, the almost-certain threat of being manipulated and taken advantage of — but find that the violence they left behind continues to seek them. Lydia is an object of sick fixation to the kingpin in southern Mexico, La Lechuza, a man whom she befriended without knowing his true nature. From Acapulco to southern Arizona, he has eyes and willing agents who want nothing more than to capture her and claim the reward. Lydia’s traveling companions also have their troubles, and some will fall along the way. American Dirt excels as a suspense thriller, as Lydia and her son are forced to move from train to train, making overland treks on foot, weighing every stranger – are they trustworthy or treacherous? There are no authorities to whom one can turn; every rank of law enforcement and the military are corrupted, if not by the gangs than by personal viciousness. There are scenes of murder, dismemberment, and something approaching a rape scene – so reader be warned. But there is also grace — from the clergy who feed and shelter migrants, to ordinary citizens who offer advice and resources to spare the refugees as much abuse and danger as they can. But the light amid the darkness is most obvious in the relationships between Lydia, Luca, and several other travelers who they share so much of the journey with – supporting one another along the way through their respective problems.
After reading American Dirt I was surprised to find it’s at the center of a controversy; Latino authors decry it as not being authentic enough and taking attention away from voices closer to the ground. I can’t speak to that, but what I know is that it’s an absolutely gripping story, one that kept me invested throughout, and has prompted me to learn more about why so many feel compelled to take on the miseries of the trek north, as well as wonder what those of us who live in the United States and Mexico can do to respond to the needs of migrants which respects both their dignity and the two nations’ sovereignty. It’s definitely a story that will linger long in my mind, much as The Kite Runner did.