Tinder Press’ lead for 2020 is a powerful read which tells of a mother and her eight-year-old son, forced to flee their home in Acapulco after the local drug cartel murders the rest of their family. Travelling north by any means—including on the perilous freight trains known as "la bestia"—they join the thousands of migrants heading for the safety of the US-Mexico border. It is the author’s UK début: she has had two novels and a true crime work published in the US, and Headline will support strongly, including a UK and Ireland author visit.
American Dirt, with its portentous title, cannot be classed as a political book, for all its timeliness and humanity. Valeria Luiselli’s 2019 novel Lost Children Archive, about what happens once migrants reach the Mexican-American border, is a profoundly more nuanced and urgent work. Yet Cummins, in addition to an undeniable flair for drama, conveys well the shifting allegiances of characters who find themselves in changed circumstances, and is good on the sensorial aspect of the gruelling odyssey: hunger, boredom, fear, exertion and depletion, overlaid with the often fiercely beautiful sights and smells of Mexico. As Luca muses: “How strange it is that being a migrante means you spend more time stopping than in motion. Their lives have become an erratic wheel of kinesis and paralysis.” Notwithstanding the book’s flaws, Cummins ensures that we root for those lives right up till the end.
My God, does this book shake the statistics out of you. It starts with a gunshot – “One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing” – and does not let up. It places you right in the heart of the terror and holds your eyes open. Released at the end of January, this might be the first book some people read this year. It might also be the best.
To reach safety in the U.S., Lydia and Luca must go underground, take the migrant route, forever look over their shoulders and trust no-one.
A nightmare ensues; desperate alliances and split-second decisions risking instant death. The two of them cling to the tops of freight trains and encounter rape, murder, theft and brutality of every possible sort.
And yet amid all the horror are moments of hope, friendship, kindness and love. An absolutely unforgettable read.
American Dirt is at its best when it knowingly explores the insulations, obligations and tenuousness of privilege. When Lydia and Luca beg the assistance of a busload of Pentecostal missionaries from some “faraway cornfield church” in Indiana, only to be met with hesitation. “Are they just drive-by Samaritans?” a local church member asks. “They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown children?” Or when Lydia remembers her past self, “peripherally aware of destitution”, distractedly listening to news reports of the caravan of desperate families fleeing Guatemala and Honduras: “All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite, how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they came from, that this is the better option.”
But the book’s very ambitions, to document the migrant experience, ultimately work against it. While Lydia is grappling with her grief and trying to work out who to trust (no one, is the answer), the novel is compelling and eye-opening. Short sentences, driving narrative. But as she and Luca first escape to Mexico City and then board La Bestia, the nickname for the goods train carrying migrants north, and as they meet their fellow passengers (including two Honduran girls whose beauty puts them in constant danger), the grip loosens, and the novel mutates from thriller to melodrama.
Jeanine Cummins creates a convincing and pervasive atmosphere of dread as she propels us through her nightmare scenario, alongside characters who confound popular preconceptions about migrants at every turn. And the family bonds at the centre of her tale are affectingly drawn. Dirty, penniless, destitute and vulnerable, Lydia often has only her fierce, desperate love for Luca to push her through their ordeal. You will them on, fists clenched.
It is this contrast – familial love against external atrocities – that gives the novel its immediacy and power. Small details – as when Lydia risks losing the rest of their group in order to put a plaster on Luca’s blister – are quietly heart‑wrenching. What Cummins does so skilfully in the novel is to subvert popular preconceptions about migrants. Lydia is educated, middle-class, escaping to America not in search of better economic opportunities but simply to survive. “She and Luca are actual migrants… All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite, how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they came from, that this is the better option.”
As well as its exciting twists, American Dirt is full of deft touches and is so much more than a simple thriller. Cummins’ novel is an exploration of why humans are forced to leave their homes and migrate in the 21st century. It is a heart-wrenching, thoughtful story, which is so much stronger for concentrating on the victims of brutality and inhumanity rather than the perpetrators.