Book Review: American Dirt

Overall Rating: 3.75/5

Given the current political climate and ongoing discussions on immigration in the United States, I was so excited to get my hands on “American Dirt”, especially when I saw that it occupied that coveted spot in Oprah’s book club. By the time I opened those first pages of the novel, I was also aware that a cloud of controversy loomed over the book’s legacy. There were undeniably problematic elements in this novel – but there was plenty to appreciate. Whether one enjoys or dislikes this book will depend entirely on the eye (or perspective) of the beholder.

“American Dirt” is a compelling and engaging narrative that explores the essence and depth of maternal love. We see this from the very first chapter in which Cummins paints the horrifying image Lydia hiding in excruciating silence, desperately calming her son, as their entire family is slaughtered. Lydia’s love for her son and her need to protect him serves as the guiding force in this novel, illuminating the path ahead in spite of the darkness that encroaches on them from every direction. There is plenty of action and Cummins artfully creates a chilling air of suspense that permeates throughout the story, however, it is the tale of humanity and the many crutches we utilize as support that gripped my attention. Lydia is a protagonist that mirrors (to varying degrees) the humanity that we cherish most in ourselves, making her easy to understand and relate with. We see who we become and what we are truly capable of when we are faced by the most daunting and terrifying circumstances, and we rely on anything that brings us comfort. For Lydia, her strength came from her son, her faith, and those around her, and the dichotomy that ensues between fear and hope is one that many readers will empathize and connect with.

While the book deals beautifully with this survival story and mother-son relationship, it falls into an all too familiar and highly problematic trope when it explores Lydia’s relationship with the cartel. I found myself sighing and almost closing the book when it revealed that she had befriended Javier, the cartel’s kingpin, and thought of him as an intellectual who had somehow fallen into the terrors of his murderous job. This plot line was a disservice to the book and was an unnecessary attempt to create a “complicated” villain where one was not required. The story was never about the cartel, and this was a distracting element that was at times difficult to look beyond. Moreover, many have called to attention other stereotypes prevalent in the novel which reinforce inaccurate perceptions of immigration barriers and Latin America.

So where do I land this book? I’m not entirely sure. To me, it depends on the story you are looking to read. If you turn to this book to gain a better appreciation and understanding of the migrant experience, you will be left disappointed. However, once I accepted the book for what it was, I was able to enjoy the incredible storytelling that deserves credit. Which side did you fall on? Let me know your thoughts below!

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