Book Review: Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt”

American Dirt isn’t a book that I picked up for myself; it’s one that I was lent by my Mum – and it’s probably a good job too because, if I’m being honest, I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading it otherwise… Not because I haven’t heard good things – I’ve heard tons of good things – but because sometimes with really popular new releases that completely dominate all books/reading online platforms, I actively avoid them; a stubborn stand against them being shoved down my throat so much. Of course, this is a real character flaw of mine, because if books are massively popular, it’s usually for a reason. Which was exactly the case for American Dirt. I read it purely to get my Mum off my back (sorry Mum), but ended up loving it!

The Plot…

Without a doubt, I am still absolutely in awe at how this plot ignited right from the very beginning. There was no slow introductory build up, and no easing into the story – Cummins threw the reader right into the deep end with very first scene: a family gathering to celebrate a young girl’s quinceañera in Mexico. And in an instant: 16 bodies, gunned down by cartel members. Lydia’s niece, Yennifer, now lies dead in her white quinceañera dress. Her husband – a prominent journalist and the love of her life – lies murdered, spatula still in his hand from cooking on the BBQ. Lydia’s whole family are dead. Yet, hidden silent and terrified in the bathroom, Lydia survives, clutching her young son – Luca. All she knows is one thing. They must run.  

Naturally, the rest of the novel documents this Mother and Son’s harrowing, tortuous journey to el norte in a desperate bid to escape the same fate as their loved ones. In a country rampant with cartel activity, and an all-points bulletin out on their lives, American Dirt is a story of utter mistrust, suspicion, betrayal, and the unthinkable cruelly of mankind. Crucially, it is also one of the kindness of strangers, the unbreakable bonds and relationships that form between human beings, the lengths a mother will go to for her child, and the will of hope; the will to live.

While I can’t comment on much of the plot for this book without disclosing spoilers, Lydia and Luca’s journey is – predictably – far from simple. Travelling with their lives stuffed into backpacks and their life-savings tucked away about their persons, they are forced to use the notoriously dangerous cargo trains as a method of transportation, risking their lives with every step because what lurks in the shadows behind them is far worse. With the inconceivable hardships and horrors that the characters in this novel endure, simply with the ambition to survive, it is a powerful story illuminating the reality of fleeing migrants and asylum seekers. Like Lydia and Luca, they want the basic necessities taken so frequently for granted, without thinking twice.  To sip coffee in the mornings, see their kids go to school, have a little job, and not fear for their safety at every turn.

The Characters…

Following Lydia and Luca on this traumatic journey, it felt a lot like I was travelling with them, rooting for their survival, and scrutinising every new name that crossed their path with protective scepticism. Both characters were incredibly loveable: Luca was the sweetest, most thoughtful little boy, introspective and fiercely loyal – particularly to the two young girls they meet on their difficult voyage. And Lydia – for sure my favourite character – was extraordinarily strong-willed and just an incredible character all round. An owner of a bookstore (which is everyone’s dream job isn’t it?) the misfortune of her family begins with her trusting the wrong man who one day visits her shop, and this responsibility and guilt journeys with her across Mexico. Patient and loving to her son at all times – even under immense distress and panic – and maternal to other young individuals they attract as travel partners along the way, Lydia is an amazing Mother-figure and protector, undoubtedly saving the lives of the young girls – Rebeca and Soledad.

Would I recommend?

In short, yes! I’m very grateful my Mum recommended it to me and subtly-pressured me into actually reading it rather than letting it sit on my “to-be-read” pile for months – However, it does now sadly have some Pudding teeth marks in it, but that’s part and parcel with being a Cat-Grandma I’m afraid.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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