It is wise for readers to be skeptical of the hype machine that drives so much of the book world. American Dirt is due out next January, but is already on “most anticipated” lists. It sold for seven figures, comes with glowing recommendations from Julia Alvarez, Rumaan Alam, and Stephen King, and the movie adaptation is underway.
I found out about it on my weekly volunteer shift at Buffalo Street Books. The manager pressed an ARC on me after reading it herself. This is the author’s fourth book, but I had never read any of the others. In total ignorance, with no special anticipation, I took it on vacation. And then it took over my life for three days, with regular breaks to let my heart rate drop.
Cummins opens with a devastating massacre that could be the climax of another novel. It ignites an inferno of grief and terror that sends bookstore owner Lydia and her eight year old son Luca fleeing their home town of Acapulco north to the USA, through one lion’s den after another, with little time to reflect, let alone bury their dead.
They begin this journey wanted by the head of a drug cartel, but with the advantages of education, Mexican citizenship, and significant cash in hand and in a bank. Other migrants they encounter are from other nations, underage, penniless, illiterate, chronically ill. Two are middle class deportees with their lives and families established in the USA. All of them are interesting and vivid individuals, and all are hounded by constant threats of murder, torture, rape, dismemberment, capture by traffickers and death by constant physical risks and deprivations. Sometimes they escape, sometimes they do not.
It feels heartless to call this novel a road trip thriller, based as it is on journalistic research and the real lives of so many people. But that is part of what raises the stakes so high: the knowledge of just how bad the reality can be. That one of the protagonists is an eight year old child raises them even higher. If she has to jump onto a moving train, so does he. If they are traveling with a group of migrants that runs into the “police,” there is no way for her to control what Luca sees, or suffers. He knows it, and for her sake, as children do, he tries to pretend he is just fine. Meanwhile they have not begun to absorb their extraordinary initial losses.
Cummins writes the effects of traumatic shock like someone with personal experience of it. Her prose is clean and effective, and when her research pokes through here and there, it gives only a faint pause as the story charges forward. This is not one of those books that opens with a bang and then sags in the middle, or transforms into a disappointment by the end. It is a wild ride straight through, with genuine emotional depth, and new characters and fresh concerns introduced well past the halfway mark. It is crowded with tragedies, but it does not end with one. However, Cummins makes it clear that she is letting the reader off easy. Early on, Lydia remembers how she loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child. “At the end of each chapter you’d have to decide what to do next…When Lydia didn’t like the outcome of her plot, or sometimes even when she did, she would backtrack and make a different choice.” Like a good coyote, Cummins guides the reader along one of the safest possible versions of this terrifying story, but wrong turns loom on every side, and not everyone makes it through.
This book may not be a good choice for anyone who is has experienced comparable traumas, or is close to others who have. For everyone else, it is not to be missed. And if an epic social novel can help attract public sympathy to the millions of undocumented immigrants who have too often been vilified and dismissed as subhuman, this could be the one.