Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Revisiting American Dirt

  • 04 November 2021
Writers inevitably learn bitter lessons, including one about readers who will be wounded, hurt, or at least deeply offended by their work. There is usually more than one group of these, for people become upset for reasons that are many and varied. Such is the case in the reaction to Jeanine Cummins’ fourth book, American Dirt. Cummins has been variously accused of stereotyping, racism, narcissism, and of lacking in empathy.

It is also alleged that she failed to ‘vet’ her book, in that she did not hire a ‘sensitivity reader.’ Some people even consider her book downright harmful and exploitative: the list goes on. When I started reading Cummins’ novel, I had no idea of the controversy, but it wasn’t long before I was instructed via the voluminous amount of material on the Internet.

I usually read at a fairly fast rate, probably too fast on occasion. But not this time. So harrowing was this book that I kept putting it down and picking it up again when I felt I had the strength to cope with the subject matter and the unfolding story. The protagonists are Lydia, resident in Acapulco, and her 8-year-old son, Luca. Lydia’s husband, Luca’s father, is a crusading journalist, who one day writes a newspaper piece about the leader of a cartel, despite being very aware of organised crime and its violent actions against critics. Soon afterwards, journalist Sebastian and fifteen members of the extended family are murdered during a birthday party. Lydia and Luca are the only survivors: the crucial complication is that Lydia has unwittingly formed a friendship with the head of the cartel, and so realises that she and Luca are in deadly danger. There is nothing to do but cope with overwhelming grief and trauma somehow, flee the scene, and try to reach the USA.

It is a nightmare journey, during which mother and son join the thousands thronging the route to America, and fall in with some young people who have already endured terrible experiences: girls are particularly vulnerable, being routinely robbed and raped along the way. Together with their new friends, Lydia and Luca ride on the roof of La Bestia (The Beast), the freight train that travels from southern Mexico to the US border. Getting on and off the train is highly dangerous, and so is much of the company sharing the journey. At the end of the ride, they have