I read AMERICAN DIRT and while I appreciated the author’s efforts and her skill at writing a thriller, I was also conflicted by the lack of authenticity I felt about the novel — even before the controversy exploded. I wrote a review (3 of 5 stars) and then another post about appropriation.
I got caught up in the protests over Jeanine Cummins’ novel, mostly by Latino writers, who were outraged that a white writer had been given such a huge publishing contract and marketing rollout for a book about migrants.
One of those angry voices, belonging to the Mexican American writer David Bowles, listed some books people should be reading instead of American Dirt if they wanted a more authentic take on the migrant experience.
And so I arrived at THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, by Cristina Henriquez.
This novel focuses on migrants who have already arrived in the United States, some having been here for many years, others recent arrivals. The primary narrative is a teenage love story, which gives the novel a bit of a YA feel, but there are also short vignettes narrated by secondary characters that really bring the novel and the migrant experience to life. I think.
Henriquez is a talented young writer. The novel is an easy and rewarding read.
But is it more authentic than American Dirt? I can’t answer my own question because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the migrant experience, but I did feel at many points in the novel, especially in those scenes that were frustrating, frightening, unfair, or hopeless for the characters, that “this is how it must be for migrants.” And it often wasn’t pretty.
Jeanine Cummins also wrote about frustrating, frightening, unfair, and hopeless situations for her characters, but the characters, structure, and narrative arc of American Dirt are somehow sanitized, or Americanized: the familiar and appealing protagonists (grieving but determined mother, resilient young son), the tense thriller chase (standard fare), the peek at violence (but pulling back to avoid graphic or unsettling detail). Not one character acted in any way that was surprising or unfamiliar to me.
Not so in The Book of Unknown Americans. I hadn’t expected the men to be so patriarchal and authoritarian, or the women to be so submissive. I hadn’t realized how difficult the language barrier makes just about everything. How hard the characters were willing to work to make a better life, how much they were willing to endure.
The teenagers, though, were teenagers through and through, although the young woman, Maribel, was a unique choice for a character, as a brain injury motivated her parents to move north to the United States to get their daughter better care.
In the end, it’s not that one novel is right and the other wrong, or one is good and the other not. But what does seem wrong is that a publisher anointed one of these novels as “It” and sunk a boatload of resources into ensuring it will be a bestseller.
As a very midlist author myself, I’d like to see publishing resources spread out a bit more, but that’s a different story.
4 out of 5 stars for The Book of Unknown Americans.