American Dirt, a substantial novel

American Dirt

Last night I had a dream.

In this dream I am in the Mexican desert, witnessing a young woman commit a crime. It is a morally reprehensible act, and as I watch, I try to summon an appropriate response. I am shocked, in my dream, to find that I do not mind the perpetration of this crime.

In fact, I do not mind at all.

When I wake up I marvel at how the brain can hold experiences, real and perceived, for contemplation.

I had been dreaming about a character from Jeanine Cummins recent book American Dirt. This in itself is rare, to dream of characters from books, but not unheard of for me. What is unusual is the fact that it has been six weeks since I finished American Dirt. The story still had a hold on me, living on in my mind long after turning the last page.

American Dirt contains some big questions around personal choice, what is right, what is wrong and the way in which society treats its humans, indigenous and otherwise.

The book garnered its fair share of media attention; yet that debate is for another day. Jeanine Cummins is an American author with four other books in print. She has links with Ireland, being a finalist in the Rose of Tralee and is married to an Irish man.

The story in American Dirt unfolds around Lydia Quixano Pérez who lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

One day a man visits Lydia’s bookshop and purchases several of Lydia’s personal favourite books. They strike up a conversation and this customer becomes a regular. They form an unusual friendship but unbeknownst to Lydia this man, Javier, is the jefe of a drug cartel that has been terrorising residents of the city. Lydia’s husband writes a tell-all profile for the newspaper and the outcome of this action will impact on Lydia’s life forever.

Forced to flee the city, family and places that she loves, Lydia and her eight year old son must make the perilous and arduous journey to El Norte.

The pace of American Dirt is breakneck. It is a substantial novel, well over the usual two-hundred and fifty pages in length. Throughout, Cummins keeps her foot on the throttle, weaving story and suspense, pace and plausibility throughout the novel.

This is a slick, cartel thriller but what is different is that Cummins main characters are a woman and her young son. Lydia is a middle class, successful business woman whose life is rendered unliveable. She has no option but to escape. There is no going back for Lydia. The impermanence of things in a person’s life is highlighted when you read this novel.

American Dirt is a good story, a page turner, a piece of literary entertainment but it also highlights the plight of immigrants the world over. The novel offers questions around the levels that desperate people will stoop to. In the moral dilemmas of this book, you, as the reader will find yourself shocked at who you align with.

I still reflect on the characters and their plight, so much so that I dream about them. Though it is a fictitious portrayal of a person’s life, the punch behind American Dirt is that people in the world are currently fleeing persecution, currently seeking asylum, currently putting their lives in danger so they can attain basic human rights.

The punch behind this book is that though it is fiction, it could well be fact.

I think everyone should read American Dirt, if only to encourage debate and some whacky dreams.


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