Book Review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt begins by describing a shoot out at a barbeque where a woman’s entire family, other than her son, are murdered by a cartel. Sixteen people are killed. The opening is tense, frightening and focuses on the emotions of a young boy and his mum hiding in the shower and thus avoiding murder.
Next we are given some of the context about why this particular family has been targeted. Lydia, the protagonist, is a bookstore owner. Her husband, Sebastian is a journalist about to expose a cartel leader, Javier Crespo. This has dramatic and tragic consequences. The twist comes in the fact that Javier is bookish. He is a frequent visitor to Lydia’s bookstore and the two have become good friends. The stereotype of cartel leaders is challenged. Lydia has viewed Javier as gentle and smart, yet Javier is to blame for countless murders, including sixteen members of her own family. Fearing for their lives Lydia and her son Luca have to go ‘on the run’ to escape the horror and stay alive.
And thus the scene is set.
The context is set quickly and the remainder of the story explores the hardships and dangers of travelling as illegal immigrants. As Lydia and Luca travel, largely illegally on freight trains, they befriend two sisters who have had to flee. Their beauty puts them in constant risk of rape and thus the writer exposes the often, unmentioned, crimes that immigrants trying to reach America endure. As we meet a range of characters from different backgrounds we are constantly shown that no one would take this journey unless they were desperate. We see first hand the ridiculous reasons why some travellers have been deported and it is impossible not to feel immense sympathy for them.
Through the unusual combination of insightful character portrayal, alongside a tense fast-moving plot that is full of suspense the reader is hooked and cares massively what happens. Consequently, by writing American Dirt Jeanine Cummins is able to reach a massive audience in order to share a highly political message.
Book Discussion Questions on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
In American Dirt it seems that Lydia’s only focus is to save Luca and stay alive. A reference is made to Lydia’s suffering, but it isn’t dwelled on. In effect she has to put her immense grief on hold. How successfully does Jeanine Cummins create smpathy and empathy for the suffering that the key characters endure?
What emotions did you feel once you completed the whole book? Why?
Should Sebastian have written the article on Javier Crespo? Why or why not?
Do you think Sebastian and Lydia had a strong marriage?
Although fiction rather than memoir, thousands upon thousands of people take a similar journey to that of Lydia and Luca. What did you learn about from reading American Dirt?
Is El Chacal a hero or a villain?
If you are an American reader how do you expect readers from the rest of the world to respond to this book?
El Chacal allowed Soledad to murder Lorenzo. Why did he do this? Do you think he made the ‘right decision?
What sympathy, if any, do you have for Javier?
What would you ask Jeanine Cumming if she was here with you at this book discussion?
Did you think the ending of American Dirt was satisfactory?
Writers are frequently told to ‘show not tell’ as a means of presenting their message. Cummins, I think, does this very effectively. Do you agree? Discuss the parts of the story which you found the most moving and powerful.
Marisol has been deported from America and is desperate to return to her daughters. She is under no illusions about her own bravery or heroism yet arguably is a hero. Discuss.
What do you think will happen to Lydia and Luca once they reach North America?
What do you think Donald Trump would say about this book?
If America Dirt was a film who would you cast in the main roles?
Bookclub Questions for American Dirt (if you haven't read the book!)
Lydia will do anything to protect her son? Would you give up your life for someone else?
Do you consider yourself a brave person?
Lydia compartmentalizes her life and sets her grief aside as a survival strategy? Are you able to compartmentalize different emotions?
Discuss the complexities regarding immigration.
Share what you know about cartels.
American Dirt is clearly relevant in today’s world. (In this respect (only) it is similar to Middle England by Jonathan Coe) Discuss whether you enjoy reading books that explore real and contempary suffering.Why or why not?
When reading a work of fiction do you find it helpful to know what inspired the author to write it?
Summary of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is an excellent story which will keep you gripped from beginning to end. If you are fortunate enough to read Jeanine Cummins’ accompanying essay and to see the level of research she completed and her personal reasons for writing the story, it becomes even more powerful.
Jeanine Cummins’ comments in her essay about the book that she felt inadquate to tell the story of the migrants, but she does it brilliantly. I can imagine that sometime soon American Dirt will be made into a very successful film.