It was over a year ago that I began to hear off-the-charts recommendations from trusted booksellers about a novel called “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins. The novel's circle of admirers has since swelled to include the likes of Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham and Julia Alvarez.
Such a disparate line-up of blurbs signals what an unusual creature “American Dirt” is: It's a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale.
American Dirt's most profound achievement, though, is something I never could've been told about nor anticipated. Of all the "What if?" novels I've read in recent years — many of them dystopian — American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it's like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment.
American Dirt opens with the sudden violent intrusion of the unthinkable into the mundane. An 8-year-old boy named Luca is standing before the toilet in his grandmother's house in Acapulco when a bullet — one of what sounds like hundreds — flies through the open window. A second later, Luca's mother, Lydia, runs in and shoves him tight against the tile wall of a partially enclosed shower stall. The pair hold their breath as a gunman enters. Without glancing into the shower, he pees and leaves.
Outside, the corpses of 16 family members are scattered around the backyard; they'd gathered earlier that day for a quinceañera, a 15th birthday celebration. Among the dead is Sebastián, a journalist, who was Lydia's husband and Luca's father. It was Sebastián's exposé of a cartel head nicknamed La Lechuza that sparked this mass execution. For the rest of the novel, Lydia will barely have time to take in her tragic losses. Cummins writes that, "trauma waits for stillness" and, for Lydia, to stand still is to die.
What ensues from that horrific opening is a tense on-the-road ordeal, in which Lydia struggles to save herself and her son from the long reaches of La Lechuza by trying to cross the border to the U.S. First, however, the pair have to get to the border from Acapulco, which is easier said than done.
Mexico has become one sprawling maze of a prison for Lydia and Luca. The cartels rule: They've paid off police, hotel desk clerks and airline ticket agents, and they maintain roadblocks on the highways between cities. The only way to travel north is to walk (over 1,000 miles) or to ride La Bestia, the dangerous trains on which desperate migrants cling to the top of freight cars. With the help of two teenage sisters from Central America, whom they meet along the way, this middle-class mother and son learn how to jump aboard the moving freight cars and hold on tight for their lives.
Cummins doesn't spare her characters from the predatory dangers the road poses, among them kidnapping, violence and sexual brutality. But random acts of kindness also abound: an outstretched hand to steady one's balance atop the freight car, the gift of an old knit cap to ward off cold. Early on in their ordeal, Lydia, who was a bookstore owner in Acapulco, is stunned to realize that what she'd first thought of as a disguise for her and Luca, has become a reality:
She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of [Lydia's] lungs. All her life she's pitied those poor people. ... She's wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. ...
[Lydia realizes now that] [a]fter all those years of watching it happen elsewhere, ... Acapulco has joined the procession, ... No one can stay in a brutal, bloodstained place.
Cummins' novel brings to life the ordeal of individual migrants, who risk everything to try to cross into the U.S. But, in its largest ambitions, the novel also captures what it's like to have the familiar order of things fall away and the rapidity with which we humans, for better or worse, acclimatize ourselves to the abnormal. Propulsive and affecting, American Dirt compels readers to recognize that we're all but a step or two away from "join[ing] the procession."
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