Sometimes I dread writing about a hyped new novel. It often turns out to be not my kind of thing. I politely scribble, “An excellent read, but not quite for me.”
Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a fast-paced, issue-oriented new novel, has been hyperbolically promoted, almost to the point of hysteria. It is a heart-rending book, but in terms of style unmemorable. I call it the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of migrant-journey fiction.
Though I have reservations about the style, it is an emotional read. Cummins breathtakingly chronicles the flight of sympathetic heroine Lydia, a bookstore owner, after her journalist husband and fifteen family members are massacred by a cartel in Acapulco. Lydia hopes she and her eight-year-old son Luca can make it to the border, where they will hire a coyote (guide) to help them cross illegally into the U.S. They are on the cartel hit list because Lydia’s husband wrote an article revealing the identity of the cartel leader.
Though well-researched and well-written, the book has a hint of Y.A. didacticism.
A syrupy headline of a review at The New York Times declares: “Writing about the border crisis, hoping to break down walls.”
And take a look at these dramatic blurbs.
Ann Patchett: “I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.” (Never? And now I remember how self-serving and insincere Patchett always seems.)
Stephen King: “Extraordinary.”
John Grisham: “It’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt.”
For most of us, the issue of illegal immigration is distant, but for Cummins, the wife of a former undocumented immigrant, it is terrifyingly real. She details the grueling conditions of migrants from Mexico, and the high probability of injury, capture by Immigration agents, or death along the way. Lydia has the money to fly from Mexico City, but her son doesn’t have a passport. They must go by foot and by train, running alongside the train, hopping onto the rungs of the ladder, and then climbing on top for the trip.
On their journey, they make friends, but there are also criminals and undercover cartel members. It is a terrifying journey: they must even be alert in the churches that give shelter, because they never know who’s in the next room.
Some of you will like this book, others will love it. Some, like me, will be lukewarm. It is a good read, if you like issue novels.