Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (2020) 3 Stars***

Perhaps destined to be the most controversial book of 2020, this work of fiction, American Dirt, has the misfortune of being written by a non Latinx author, a middle class, educated, non-immigrant half White and half Puerto Rican (from a Puerto Rican grandmother) American who is accused of cultural appropriation, exaggerating racial stereotypes, misrepresenting real life in Mexico and Central America, and capitalizing on a story that is not her story or the story of her people. The author has experienced death threats, cancellations of interviews across the country, removal of American Dirt from book stores, yada, yada, yada.

Despite the myriad heart-wrenching sagas presented by Latinx and Hispanic authors, somehow Oprah, the publishing world, and the press have jumped on this non-authentic book as the one that truly presents the plight of today’s Latinx immigrant. So, why all the positive acclaim? It has always been my contention that too many of today’s books are rewarded for the timeliness of their subjects rather than than the excellence of their writing. This is one of those examples. But, still, can’t her opponents just ignore her, rather than hunting her down and killing her, so to speak?

Fleeing violence, murder, rape, trafficking, robbery, starvation, lack of educational opportunities, and loss of dignity—undertaking the dangerous journey to salvation in the United States of America—is a horrific experience.  What is lacking in this book is heart and soul. It does not capture my emotions. I did not feel any emotional connection to the characters. Yes, intellectually their plight is a sad one, but the author fails to present her book as an emotional appeal. More like a newspaper account or a documentary, the story is often told, rather than shown. Maybe this is the sad result of the author lacking first-hand experience. Her heart was not broken, only her mind was horrified.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Cummins apologizes for considering herself American and a non-suffering member of the middle class, plays up the inherent racism directed at brown and black people and the misconceptions about their cultures held by the privileged whites. It’s a given that it’s going to come down on this chick from all sides.

Personally, I’m tired of people who pander to the current subversive, divisive propaganda for profit, then get rewarded for it. This book is preachy and what is presented as fact is most often a distorted emotional argument. Maybe researched, but not well-presented.

The author studied this subject for many years before writing her book. Cummins tells us two female cousins were brutally raped, beaten and thrown over a bridge while her brother was beaten and then thrown over the same bridge by four American thugs in St. Louis, Missouri. The author’s husband was an undocumented immigrant from Ireland. They lived in fear that he would be deported until they were finally married. These are the reasons the author feels entitled to tell the story she has written?!? What does one thing have to do with the other?

The author claims to abhor violence in all forms and is horrified by its prevalence in the country to our south. It is for these reasons that she researched and wrote this book: “As I traveled and researched, even the notion of the American dream began to feel proprietary. There’s a wonderful piece of graffiti on the border wall in Tijuana that became, for me, the engine of this whole endeavor. I photographed it and made it my computer wallpaper. Anytime I faltered or felt discouraged, I clicked back to my desktop and looked at it: También De Este Lado Hay Sueños—On this side, too, there are dreams.”

Let’s get to the plot. Attractive, self-absorbed, Acapulco book store owner Lydia and her eight year old son, Luca, are forced to flee for their lives after her politically and culturally critical journalist husband and fifteen family members are shot dead by the gang banger emissaries of the newest local drug lord with whom Lydia has been having flirtatious, esoteric discussions about poetry and literature at her book store. Even though Lydia’s husband has  just published a controversial expository about La Lechuza, Lydia is convinced that his warm feelings for her will protect her husband, her family and her from any retribution on his part. How wrong she is!

The mother and son are joined by other asylum seekers and together they make the perilous journey. The author makes a point to make sure we know that there is good and bad along the way, and we shouldn’t dwell on negative stereotypes disseminated by American leaders, residents of states bordering Mexico, and reports by the American press and border guards.

In the Author’s Notes, Cummins states that we consider ourselves to be the only Americans and do not include citizens of Central America and South America in the term. This is how I see it: The name of our country is the United States of America, so citizens are Americans. Americans does not refer to the continent on which we live since the continent of North America includes the US, Canada and Mexico. The citizens of Canada and Mexico are called Canadians and Mexicans respectively. Central America is a region comprised of seven countries, so their citizens are referred to as citizens of such (ex. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans), not by the region in which they live. This is also true of the citizens of the thirteen countries that comprise the continent of South America. They are referred to as citizens of their country (ex. Agentinians, Colombians), not the continent on which they live. In conclusion, citizens of the United States of America have the right to exclusively be called Americans because it is the name of our country.

To those who portend that reports of violence in Mexico and Central American countries are greatly exaggerated, if this is true, why are people leaving those countries by the thousands with stories that would put goosebumps on the arms of anyone listening? Are you suggesting these stories are a ruse for admission to the US?

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at author@elainedonadio.com.

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

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