Book Review: American Dirt

My copy of the book.

Don’t think. This is the life-protecting mantra Lydia repeats over and over again as she and her son, Luca, make the 1,700-mile trek from Acapulco, Mexico to the United States in Jeanine Cummins’ harrowing 2019 novel, American Dirt. Because if you think, the trauma you’re running from will swallow you whole. Or the desert will. Or the wrong person connected to the cartels or the policia will. To think is to be stuck, and the migrant, of which Lydia and her son become despite being Mexican citizens, need to move to el norte, although, as they realize later, being a migrant is both motion and paralysis in equal measure (that is, waiting and hiding).

Imagine living in an environment where public beheadings and indiscriminate killing among rival cartels and cartels asserting their power is the norm, and there is no semblance of justice coming from the policia because they are corrupt and bribed by those cartels (and the
“good ones” are way too outnumbered to make a difference). Worse yet is how draconian such a system becomes: you don’t know who can be trusted, and whether someone is genuinely trying to help you or deliver you back to the cartels. Meanwhile, the trek itself to get to el norte is rife with those same issues, but also the dangerousness of rampant rape and thievery (they are warned at one point that they will arrive in el norte penniless, and that’s basically true), and the nearly uninhabitable desert between Mexico and the United States, where walls aren’t even erected because the desert with its extreme heat and cold in equal measure is a wall of its own. Then, there is La Bestia, which I previously talked about in my review of Enrique’s Journey, riding atop trains to move north, risking life and limb, quite literally, and all the aforementioned dangers of being killed, robbed, raped, or caught by the migrant police. Imagine that world of the cartels. So brutish and violent and engendering a level of fear, scabbed over trauma, and unrelenting paranoia, that you would risk it all, including your life, to to get to el norte, atop La Bestia and through the unforgiving desert. And if that wasn’t enough, waiting for you on the other side, in the promised land of Los Estados Unidos, are the Border Patrol, vigilante militias, and a general American public who doesn’t want you there, who are more than ready and willing to deport you right back to the hell you’re trying to escape.

It is beyond heartbreaking. In Cummins’ hands, through the absolutely beautiful and enduring motherly love of Lydia for her whip-smart kid, Luca, there is beauty in the struggle, there is a real humanity to the trauma, and there is real sense of triumph after the tribulations, even if the triumph is meager by our own comparisons. Despite his whip-smart personality, you never for a moment forget that Luca is an eight-year-old boy that has seen violence he never should have witnessed and is experiencing a trial unimaginable for most adults, much less a child. In that way, Cummins renders him real and unforgettable, and a character we can’t look away from when we consider the “border” between the United States and Mexico and all that such an arbitrary line in the desert sand entails. But Lydia, too, is whip-smart in her way, although not in the way of La Bestia and the desert — she’s booksmart, as a bookshop owner — and its her motherly love and perseverance that makes her a character we, as readers, love. Essentially from the opening pages and until the final breathless pages, Lydia is fleeing for her life with her eight-year-old son. But it’s that love, I think, that makes her able to keep moving forward and makes her smart.

She’s on the run because Cummins’ book has one of the most awful and horrific opening moments causing the unfurling of the rest of the novel I’ve read this year: At a family quinceañera, Lydia’s family, including her intrepid reporter husband, Sebastian, are all massacred in a wild spray of bullets by cartel members. All 16 of them, including her mother. Lydia and Luca are only saved because Luca had to go to the bathroom and didn’t want to go to the bathroom alone. They were killed on the orders of the drug cartel leader, or jefe, Javier of Los Jardineros.

Javier is the same person who blossomed his way (see what I did there?) into Lydia’s life at the bookshop, sharing his poems, love of reading, and love for his daughter with her. She didn’t know Javier was a jefe until she came across Sebastian’s pending news article on him. Still, she didn’t want to believe it until Javier himself confirmed it, and subsequently, his love for her. But after the article came out, Javier’s daughter, who also didn’t know he was a jefe, killed herself leaving a suicide note to the effect of, “What’s one more life?” So, in retribution, Javier had Sebastian’s entire family killed, although he argues with Lydia later, that he never would have had her killed (does that mean he would have had Luca killed, though?).

Once Lydia and Luca are fleeing from Acapulco — because, to be sure, Javier is coming after them and again, who can you trust in Mexico? — they come across two sisters, Soledad and Rebeca, 15 and 14, respectively, who help them “board” La Bestia and stick with them through to the end to el norte. The arc for their characters is as heartbreaking as what Lydia and Luca have already faced. We come to learn Soledad was raped by Iván, some cartel wannabe from a city near their former home, and he impregnated her, too. She escaped him, though, and because of that, Iván stabbed her father in the eyes and neck, which eventually led to his death. She later miscarries the baby because of the stress of going north. Rebeca and Luca have a beautiful little sub-relationship akin to brother and sister, although I think Luca fancies her. But the light in Rebeca is dimmed when they are caught by the migrant police, who its heavily implied raped Rebeca and Soledad. Lydia had to use much of her remaining money to bribe their release. They went from feet dangling, smiling girls atop a highway overpass when we first encounter to them to shells of their former selves by the time they reach el norte. It is devastating to read and reflect upon.

One of the saddest markers of what Lydia, Luca, Soledad, and Rebeca have been through is the perfect way in which Cummins’ reflects their grief and trauma: the amnesia of trying to remember the before time, before any of the grief set in and the trauma occurred. They are having difficulty remembering their loved ones, or what it was like to have a normal life with normal concerns, or anything that wasn’t running, escaping, and surviving.

Luca is, again, perhaps Cummins’ best character in the novel in terms of being emblematic of both grief and hope, loss and yearning. Shortly after the massacre at his home, Lydia, observing her son, notes, “He looks like a turtle with an inadequate shell, yet somehow he’s managed to draw his most vulnerable parts tightly within within himself. She wonders about the lasting effects of that retraction.”

The last line in particular is a gut-punch and a running theme throughout the novel, where Lydia wonders what all of this trauma will do to Luca in the long-term. Yeah, he has his moments where he brightens up, talks again, even regales people with his smarts about geography, but when the desert dust is cleared, what will the shape of his trauma be? He will be alive, but will he thrive? These are her palpable concerns. Later, after Luca witnesses a migrant man mangled by La Bestia, Lydia wonders, “Surely her son may soon reach a limit of what a resilient child might endure without triggering some permanent internal decay. Read that again. Gut-punch doesn’t even begin to describe what a mother must feel forced to put her child through such trauma for the hope of a better life.

But by the same token, the weird thing about being human is that even the inhuman, the traumatic, the unbelievable, becomes normal after enough go-arounds. Because that’s the only way our brains can make any sense of it. At one point, Lydia realizes that she, Luca, Soledad, and Rebeca have made it almost routine to get on and off La Bestia, and she doesn’t like it. She wants them to remember how not normal it is and how terrifying it is to jump on and off of a moving train.

Another sad aspect to Luca’s character (and it occurs with Lydia’s, too) is that they will have moments in the book where they behold something beautiful or lovely, and then have that meta self-reflection and shame of, “How can I be enjoying something after my entire family was massacred?” That juxtaposition gave me goosebumps even writing it out, much less reading it, because it’s the most potent aspect of grief that resonates with me due to similar experiences I’ve had in the machinations of my own grief.

Lydia gives voice to this grief, reflecting on the singular loss of her father and the void it created within her, and now what adding 16 more such losses to her does, in a beautiful image by Cummins, “When she thinks of of this, she feels as tatty as a scrap of lace, defined not so much by what she’s made of, but more by the shapes of what’s missing.” By definition then, the person(s) who cross the border into the United States are not the same person(s) anymore, but rather something else entirely, repackaged and reformed around the missing pieces of their former selves.

So, yes, Lydia, Luca, Soledad, Rebeca, and a few others they meet along the way (but unfortunately, not a 10-year-old boy who succumbs to an asthma attack), make it to the el norte with the (costly) help of a coyote, but what they had to endure in those 19 days and across 1,700 miles of violence, the threat of violence, rape, arrest, hunger, thirst, fear, and paranoia, is enough to decay a person, even if they make it to American dirt.

I highly recommend reading American Dirt. Cummins’ book is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read in both being unrelenting, like the ever-moving La Bestia, but also, like La Bestia, slowing down just enough around the curves so we can get onboard with her characters and journey with them.

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