Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin: Characters are “berry-brown” or “tan as childhood” (no, I don’t know what that means either). In one scene, the sisters embrace and console each other: “Rebeca breathes deeply into Soledad’s neck, and her tears wet the soft brown curve of her sister’s skin.” In all my years of hugging my own sister, I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “Here I am, hugging your brown neck.” Am I missing out?
The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.
What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets.
It might be argued that this novel, saturated with compassion for migrants of all kinds, comes perilously close to sentimentality. Jeanine Cummins excels, however, at balancing extreme narrative tension with judgment, layering in vivid psychological detail and moral choices as her protagonists move through a landscape of agriculture, cities and desert. How Lydia and Luca cope with grief, guilt, shock, boredom and fear are all conveyed in clear, crisp prose, as is their intense physical suffering from heat, cold, water, dryness, hunger and thirst.
... some of Cummins’s characterisation is weak but she renders the danger and discomfort of Lydia and Luca’s journey vividly. The peril of their undertaking is powerfully evoked when Lydia stops to place a plaster on Luca’s blister, risking them losing the rest of their group and a way out of the desert.
This is not the definitive novel about migrancy, if such a thing could exist, but its detailed portrayal of the physical and mental impact of border crossing is not without merit.
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.
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.