It isn’t very often that a book gets endorsed by Stephen King and hailed by Don Winslow as “The Grapes of Wrath” for this generation. The highly anticipated book about the immigration crisis, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, was set to be one of 2020’s most influential stories — a book that would finally give a face to the border crisis. This highly dramatized story has garnered suspicion and criticism from those in the Latino community.
From commonly stereotyped characters to a misrepresentation of Mexican migrants, “American Dirt” has become swept with controversy over who has the right to tell which stories.
“American Dirt” starts violently as an 8-year-old crouches in a tiled shower, his mother shielding his body from a barrage of drug cartel members’ bullets. The two were at a Quinceanera for a family member in Acapulco, a city on the western coast of Mexico.
Throughout the course of the book, the reader learns that Lydia, the mother, was unknowingly introduced to the drug cartel through a charming, well-read customer, Javier, who frequented her bookstore. Months prior to the introduction’s events, the two chatted and became friends, even participating in casual flirtations despite their marital statuses. Lydia’s husband, a local journalist, identifies Javier as the new drug lord, and against Lydia’s wishes, he publishes a daring tell-all about Javier, thus setting the tragic events into action.
Only Lydia and her young son Luca survive the massacre of their family and are plunged into a dangerous endeavor in which they must run from a vengeful cartel boss to the only safe place they can think of — America. The rest of the book is a fast-paced, nearly theatrical journey of Lydia, Luca and a few other travel companions as they trek through the wilderness to discover their own American dream.
The events of the story play out like an embellished soap opera, complete with hired guns and a palpable sexual tension between Lydia and the drug lord ordering her death. While “American Dirt” is well-written and objectively enjoyable to read, the controversy surrounding the story and the author sours the entire experience for me. And as one continues to read the book, it’s hard not to notice the manufactured plot points inserted for the sake of readership.
From a distance, the book is a pleasant read. Chock-full of emotional language, methodical description and fast paced plot, it is hard to put down, especially in the beginning. However, as the book continues, the once-enjoyable cadence and fast plot points suddenly feel over-ripened and almost sappy, as if it was written for a telenovela and not a serious work of literature.
What many critics are condemning “American Dirt” for is the blatant exploitation of an immigrant's traumatizing story for the sake of profit. Complete with what writer Myriam Gurba calls harmful stereotypes and inaccurate depictions of drug violence, immigration and life in Mexico, the book reads like a dime store drama thriller.
Overall, the book is enjoyable — to a degree — but loses the reader the more it goes on. Everything feels too glossed over in the fictitious account and dramatic events. The well-thought-out cadence and driving plot can’t seem to drown out the overly manufactured structure of an obvious work of fiction.