It was with great reluctance that I undertook the reading of Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling and controversial novel American Dirt. Several, ultimately-thin reasons fueled my reluctance. Firstly, I possess an English major’s admittedly snobbish and petty aversion to reading “what everyone else is reading.” The more the general reading public likes a novel, the more I am prejudiced against it. Secondly, I am a fan of Don Winslow’s drug war trilogy of novels, and I just didn’t feel there was much, if anything, more to be written about the horrors associated with Central American drug cartels. Thirdly, I am marginally sympathetic to the charge of cultural appropriation levied at Cummins, a white woman-writer living in NYC, telling and profiting greatly from a story so outside of her life experience when similar migration stories have been written by Latinx authors but under-promoted by their publishers and the press. Finally, one of the best bits of reading/writing advice I have ever received comes from a Matt Nathanson song, “The Last Days of Summer in San Francisco,” in which he sings, “No one cares about the stories they’re not in,” and I just could not imagine any way I could generate empathy with the novel’s characters based on my experience living my entirely white bread life in Ohio. Eventually, however, I overcame my hesitance to read American Dirt, and I am glad I did.
The story Cummins tells is harrowing and much more horrific than any tale that has ever spilled from the pen of Stephen King. After miraculously escaping a drug lord’s ordered massacre, which resulted in the deaths of sixteen family members including her reporter-husband, Lydia, with her son Luca, undertakes a terrifying odyssey in the attempt to escape to el norte while in constant danger of being recognized, murdered, or returned to, Javier, the jefe, of the most powerful cartel in Mexico, who ordered the massacre in retaliation for an expose written about him by Lydia’s husband. Along the way, Lydia becomes a surrogate mother to three additional children who are also attempting to escape the horrors of their respective homelands. The plot unfolds at a fast pace only slowed by the weight of sadness that accumulates on the reader in response to the characters’ many misfortunes, the reader’s disgust over the senseless cruelties of men, and the reader’s fear of what atrocity awaits on the succeeding pages. The novel is not perfect. There is a plot device involving a cartel member shadowing the migrant “family” that makes less than perfect sense, and I found the ending a bit too uncomplicated and pandering. These minor complaints, however, take little from what is a compelling and thought-provoking plot.
As for my original objections, firstly, not reading a book simply because many others have read and enjoyed it is pompous and juvenile. Secondly, American Dirt, unlike the other cartel stories I mentioned, provides a unique focus on the innocent victims (women and children) of the drug trade rather than glorifying the macho narco-lifestyle or sensationalizing its violence as a sort of narco-porn; thereby, it rises above the typical narco-narrative. As for cultural appropriation, in this case, the accusation ultimately falls flat. Authors must be free to explore, write about, and expose readers to worlds beyond their own experiences, both the authors’ and the readers’. In Cummins’ case, the amount of research she conducted and effort she put into establishing verisimilitude has been well-documented, and regardless of who told this story or profits from it, many readers are now better educated regarding the god-awful plights of so many Latinx migrants. I can only hope that the novel inspires grassroots support for compassionate policies regarding the victims of drug cartel terror who seek refugee status in the U.S. Finally, as to Matt Nathanson’s notion of “nobody cares for stories they’re not in,” American Dirt became my story too when Lydia describes having been aware of the horrible deeds being perpetrated by the cartels but also having been blissfully oblivious to them as long as they didn’t directly affect her and her family. As long as she had been living a secure middle class life, she felt “anger at the injustice . . . worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation.” When I read those words, I felt enormous guilt for the times when I was aware that BLM and PRIDE marches were taking place in my own small town, but I ignored them, deciding it was more important to cut the grass or not to miss weekly coffee with friends. With that passage, Cummins achieved what I think all great literature aims for: self-examination. Reading that passage, I realized I am pre-massacre Lydia. I can empathize with her, for I am sympathetic to a multitude of innocent sufferers but have failed to take much real world action to remedy their suffering. Such sympathy, which fails to inspire action and bring about change, is fairly useless. Cummins has made me realize I can, I have to, do better. Any book that can do that is powerful and well worth the read.