I managed to get my hands on an advance reader copy (ARC) of AMERICAN DIRT, by Jeanine Cummins, a novel that has received a lot of hype and seems destined to become a best seller based on early reviews and reader enthusiasm.
Plenty of five-star ratings on Goodreads. Don Winslow calling it a GRAPES OF WRATH for our times.
The novel is a story of chase and escape. Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca, are forced to leave their Acapulco home and attempt the migrant journey to el Norte after a cartel murders their entire extended family because Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, a journalist, exposed the violent drug lord Javier in a high-profile article. Lydia didn’t realize until it was too late that the gentleman (he reads, he writes poetry, he flirts with her) she’d befriended at her bookstore was actually the vicious drug kingpin.
I can see why this novel is getting a lot of pre-pub attention. It checks off a lot of boxes: the migrant story, the immigration issue, a sympathetic female heroine, her resilient young son, danger and escape. It’s also highly readable: simple prose, straightforward plot, emotional tenor rather than intellectual rigor. The opening scene is vivid, the scenes of trying to climb on top of moving trains are harrowing, the terror is at times palpable, the bond between mother and son is powerful.
To me, the entire novel felt manufactured, written specifically for a white woman reader. It never felt fully authentic. The characters, especially the supporting cast, seemed like types. Part of this might have to do with the omniscient point of view that made all the characters seem alike, none of them having a distinctive voice. There was even something sanitized even about the violence, perhaps to make it more palatable to its target audience.
I realize I’m in the total minority here. But if I were a writer from Central America—perhaps one who’d written a similar story that has been ignored, or one who has first-hand experience with the migrant’s journey—I’d be pissed. Undoubtedly the pendulum has swung and the market is being flooded with novels from previously marginalized and underrepresented voices. This isn’t one of them.
As an author myself, I believe any writer can take on characters and subjects they don’t have first-hand knowledge or experience of, and should not be accused of appropriation—as long as the writer can pull it off.
I don’t think Cummins does pull it off. In her Acknowledgements, she thanks a number of writers she recommends if you want to learn more about Mexico and compulsory migration. Maybe I should read some of those next.