Eric Boss reviews AMERICAN DIRT

This is and will be an important book to anyone who cares about the fate of our country and how we are perceived, as well as how we see ourselves. The fact that it is fiction matters not. It holds the truth in ways that only fiction can. It is a book that every American (more about this term later) should read and absorb. It is not a political screed, nor is it a pulpit-thumping of immigration policy theory. It is a poignant, heartbreaking view of the human suffering of immigrants that brings understanding to the issue. It is a moral challenge to our citizenry and our government, but there is no preaching, no heavy-handed agenda pushing. It is a story, plain and simple.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Flatiron Books

The principals are Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca, on the run from the killers of her journalist husband and his entire family at a birthday gathering. It’s not easy getting away from a cartel with tentacles in every corner of Mexico and eyes everywhere, eager to earn favor by informing on the desperate mother and child in search of safety. The lengths to which Lydia will go and the travail she is willing to suffer are measures of her fear and her love for her child, human reasons, gut reasons. Politics and law have no place in her calculations. Love is, first and foremost, the driving force.

First, let me say something about the notion that we are the only rightful owners of that peculiar epithet “American”. Borders are just lines on a map, arbitrarily negotiated between powerful parties who decide which agency is permitted to oppress the people of a geographical region. Americans are
people who live in the Americas. In Mexico, we are known as estadounidenses or united-states-ians.

It is necessary for us, the “Americans” to understand what motivates people to come to the perceived safe haven of our country. We can offer some things that other countries cannot, but we’re all part of the same continent, the same world. Refugees come here seeking the relative peace and lawful shelter for which we have traditionally been known. They are not here to exploit, to game the system, to cheat anyone out of anything. They simply want what we have offered for many years, a place to live in tranquility, the chance to be comfortable and happy. In return they offer their labor, their contribution to our culture, their faith that we represent the best chance at a good life.

Through the hardships and danger endured by Lydia and Luca, we see the visceral meaning of the plight of refugees: escape from fear and oppression and hope for a better, safer life. The author has, with delicate skill, provided us with an exciting story that vies with any thriller for suspense. Apart from the grim nature of the perils the protagonists must navigate, this is a real page-turner. But make no mistake, this is no fluffy car-chase-explosion-fabricated-situation book. It has heart and soul, in generous measure. Congratulations are to be extended to Jeanine Cummins for creating a memorable, meaningful book with levels upon levels of meaning and profound importance for our time.

Shelf Talker: A thrilling tale of escape from a sinister cartel responsible for unspeakable cruelty and violence on one level, and a deeply meaningful examination of the phenomenon of refugees seeking asylum in our country at another, this is at the end a tale of enduring love and monumental hope. No matter your politics, this is a must-read book of seminal importance to our time and place.