“American Dirt” – Jeanine Cummins

This book was selected for a book club I’ll be attending & I now completely understand all the polarising opinions about it. Even to simply support the critical voices, I would’ve liked to give it 1/5 stars, but it did have 2 positive points to it, so I decided to settle on the total of 2/5. The 1st reaction I had after reading this book, was wanting to dive straight into some meaningful & real non-fiction, so if you intend on reading “American Dirt”, I’d suggest you to have something like that ready on your bookshelf at home.

So let’s start with the positive points:

#1 The author did manage to build up the suspense.
I got through the 460 page book in 4 days & there were multiple parts where I was racing over the words & through the pages in order to find out what happens next. I wanted to know how the story continues & how it would end. You’ve got to give at least that to the author. She did manage to captivate your attention & make you read on. With which means though, is a whole different story.

#2 I liked the way the narrative-perspective-changes were constructed.
Even though there’s nothing special about the style of writing, I would even agree with some reviewers saying that it’s mediocre, there was one part that I enjoyed: The way the author effortlessly & flawlessly managed to change from whose perspective the story was being told. It happened fluidly, didn’t leave you feeling confused, you always knew whose thoughts you were going through & added some more facets to the story.

Then the aspects I had issues with though:
How exaggerated everything about the story was.
With the simple style & language it was as if it was already laid out as the script for a movie. You can see this being turned into a cheesy & typically American movie with a happy ending, where everything just goes way too smoothly & keeps you away from engaging emotionally with the characters since it all just feels too far fetched. So yes, you are drawn in to the story, but everything feels very polished & very “pop”.

Even if this is a work of fiction, I still seek stories that would be believable enough to be real. This wasn’t the case for “American Dirt”. Everything was simply too good to be true. Luck was waiting for the main characters, the mother and her son, around every single corner.

– When they end up in a dangerous town, a guy [Danilo] appears out of nowhere, like an angel sent from heaven, staying by their side with a machine gun & protecting them from all evil, “Lydia feels as though Danilo has saved their lives perhaps seven times.” (p. 234);

– When the mother twisted her ankle on the run, the next part of the trip conveniently continues in a way where she doesn’t need to run anymore, “Being able to board while the train is stopped feels like luck, so they climb up gingerly (…)” (p. 297);

– When they’re 300$ short for paying someone to help them cross the border over to the US, of course there’s a kid from a dumpster who appears, who happens to have tons of money & helps them out, “Beto goes into his pocket and flicks out his wad of cash while Lydia watches. He already paid for his crossing and still has money to burn. ‘We just met this kid this morning,’ she thinks. ‘He doesn’t even understand how much money this is.’ (…) He covers it.” (p. 347) If the mother would have had to go out & prostitute herself to get the extra cash, it would have made for a much better story. But no, we need to stay as close to a PG13 movie-format as possible here;

– And then last but not least, when one of the girls is about to get raped, somebody ends up being at the right spot by chance to stop it from happening, “She stares up at the blank blue sky above him and waits for the worst part to happen. She wants it to be over with. But then it doesn’t. It doesn’t happen. Because (…) there’s another voice, (…) ‘get the fuck up off her this instant or I will blow your pinche brains out.’ ” (p. 427)

It almost felt like the author intended this story to be an intro for an oblivious white North American target group & wanted to make it accessible to as wide of a public as possible (or as low ages as possible with the idea of making it into a movie later on), all the hardships that you can imagine migrants have to go through, the mother with the kid in this book have been spared. Nobody got seriously hurt, nothing was stolen from them, they haven’t been raped on the way. It just all sounded unbelievable & way too easy.

The obsession with physical appearances & making all the characters beautiful just ended up being borderline annoying at some point. It starts with the boy the mother is travelling with being irresistibly cute. The two teenage girls they meet on the way end up being drop dead gorgeous, “Both girls are very beautiful, but the slightly older one is dangerously so. She wears baggy clothing and an intense scowl in a failing effort to suppress that calamitous beauty.” (p. 158) The coyote who’s supposed to bring them over the border needs to be good looking too, “His face is handsome, with angular cheekbones and a clean shave.” (p. 334) Even a random stranger, who joins their group & shows photos of her children, she’s also only entitled to have them be attractive by the author, “(…) scrolls to a photograph of two beautiful young girls, (…) she shows them to Lydia proudly.” (p. 350)

The author tries so hard to make the story “authentic”, that the attempt fails miserably by just being too much. Words in Spanish like “mijo”, “abuela”, “armónica”, etc. are strewn in throughout the otherwise purely English text, ending up making it feel like one of those American movies, where just because the story is set in Russia, the characters speak English with Russian accents, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Even if I don’t know much about Mexican culture, even to me the constant mentions of “quincañeras” as pretty much the only cultural rituals felt exaggerated & very cliché.

There are inconsistencies within the descriptions of the characters. Whereas the mother is named to be incredibly intelligent, she still ends up reassuring her husband that her family would be “a 100% surely” not hurt after publishing an article about the most dangerous narco-boss. While being on the run afterwards, she repeats how she’s not supposed to trust anyone on the way and still repeatedly & stupidly breaks her own mantra. She trusts an awful lot of people, which would get any regular person killed & of course gets away with that unharmed.

These inconsistencies continue on to the author herself too. When the book wasn’t well received, people started to dig deeper to find mistakes about her. Since she’s just a regular human being too, she was found contradicting herself in old interviews, saying that she’d never be able to write a book with a focus on “race” since she sees herself as simply & only “white”. Here is where a mistake from her publishers or editors side has slipped through, where they would have needed to advise her to explain her newly found interest in the subject in a different way, instead of linking it to her newly claimed Latin American roots. The story about living through the migrant experiences with her husband first hand (to be found in the very end of the book), while omitting to mention that he’s actually simply Irish, rather than Latin American by origins, also paints drama where it’s not fitting.

And the final three learnings thanks to this book:
– I’d sceptically perceive anyone who would rate this book with 4/5 or 5/5 stars…
– If a book like this has been chosen for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, being accompanied by an enormous amount of praise, this will make me stay as far away from their choices in the future as possible…
– The reason why I still felt why reading such a book wasn’t a waste of time is because it teaches you the difference of good & bad writing, it makes you understand what you particularly enjoy reading or what sets you off. I’d take this one as an example of how the book that I one day intend to write shouldn’t end up.

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

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