American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has a lot of buzz. It’s a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. It was the Amazon January 2020 Spotlight Pick. My local Barnes and Noble made it a monthly book club selection. I included it on our list of intriguing January-released books.
I read it. It turned out to be … not very good. How did this book get so much hype?
What is it about?
A Mexican woman attempts to flee to America with her 8-year old son in order to escape a murderous Mexican drug cartel.
What is this book like?
It tries to be a lot of things: a tense thriller, a portrayal of the grief and trauma that comes with violence, an account of the migrant experience from a feminine perspective, and some…other stuff. The book can’t decide if it wants to be fast and furious, thoughtful and reflective, or sexy and dramatic. It tries to do it all, but fails to do any of it very well. It’s not fun enough to be a good thriller, and it’s not deep or creative enough to be a good work of Literary fiction.
What sucks about this book?
The marketing push for American Dirt touted it as the next Grapes of Wrath, perhaps the definitive migrant narrative, the work that would give a voice to all those fleeing their countries. After I found out it was written by a white American woman who had not, in fact, crossed the Mexican-American border without authorization, I was skeptical about those claims. Nevertheless, I believed it could still be good. It’s a novel, not an autobiography. A well-researched book written with empathy could still be an excellent reading experience. I didn’t want to fault the book for its marketing campaign.
Then I read a few reviews by Latinx writers who…did not like the book. They pointed out how the book inaccurately represented Mexican culture, that it is not a portrayal of Mexico but rather an idea of Mexico, filtered through the cultural biases and prejudices of a liberal American’s imagination that utilizes harmful stereotypes. Essentially, they argue that the author was not qualified to write about Mexico or migrants. There are additional good points these reviewers made (particularly with regards to issues of cultural appropriation) that I encourage you to read and think about before deciding whether to purchase this book.
Leaving aside the issue of whether the author should have tackled a migrant story in the first place (because it’s already been written), I thought American Dirt could still be worth reading. I don’t expect novels to meet journalistic standards. John Steinbeck didn’t have much first-hand experience with the people he wrote about in Grapes of Wrath. He nevertheless wrote a compelling narrative and articulated an argument regarding the shortcomings of a growth-focused, dehumanized capitalist system, using a creative, energetic, newer style of writing. I believed it was possible that American Dirt could similarly convey something Important or creatively tell a story in an original way. And even if it was not Important or Super Creative, I thought maybe it would be a fun thriller. I figured the buzz was based on SOMETHING, even if the marketing department had maybe oversold it.
However, I did think it was paramount to remember, based on all of the negative feedback, that the Mexico in this book is not really Mexico-Mexico, but instead a fictional land, like a depressing Narnia or Oz. I figured as long as I kept that concept in mind, I wouldn’t be as frustrated and could enjoy the tale as presented by the author. That proved way more complicated than I anticipated.
On the one hand, it was generally very obvious that this was Fake-Mexico, written from the perspective of a white American. Most of the characters – including an 8 year old boy and Honduran teenagers – spoke and thought like a middle-aged American woman. They used American idioms and made old American cultural references. Something about most of the characters just very off, similar to the feelings I get when watching a computer-generated human actor in a movie.
On the other hand, it was equally clear that the author was attempting to write about Real-Mexico. She inserts awkward-sounding Spanish phrases into the characters’ speech (when presumably the characters had been speaking Spanish for all of the dialogue – why not translate those too?), drops references to food and media, and generally acts like someone pretending to know what they’re talking about with Mexico when it’s obvious they don’t. The juxtaposition of Obviously-Not-Mexico-Yet-Earnestly-Pretends-To-Be is…obnoxious.
Unfortunately, poor individualized characterization and geographical dissonance are not the only flaws with American Dirt. There are jarring POV shifts in the same chapter, sometimes in the same paragraph. The narrator is not so much omniscient as drunk. The book generally (inconsistently) bounces between the viewpoints of the mom and son characters, but will also sometimes pointlessly shift to some other character and then never go back to them again.
The pacing fluctuates from page-turning tense to eye-rolling tedium. There is nothing new about the way the story is told. It reads like a kind of mass-market, Literary-lite fiction, that acts like it’s thoughtful and creative when it’s just pretentious and derivative.
There is a friendship with a cartel leader that is central to the narrative, yet at the same time, reads as if it is tacked on. It’s not organically developed but rather over-explained, kind-of-via flashback. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, either.
What’s awesome about this book?
There is not too much to recommend this book. I did get emotional a few times reading it, so I have to give it credit for making me feel something and care on some level about the characters. I don’t know if emotional manipulation and misery porn can really be described as awesome, but it IS effective emotional manipulation and misery porn!
Skip this one. I gave it 3 stars, but it’s really more like a 2.5 (goodreads and amazon don’t give half-stars, though, and I try to keep my ratings consistent wherever I post reviews). It is a readable book that I finished (that makes it at least a 2 star for me), and I did ultimately care about some of the characters. Those are really the only positives.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- want to join the conversation about whether this book is any good or not, given the hype
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- value your time
- have any other book to read
My Rating: 3 Stars