Lydia and her ten-year-old son Luca are on the run after surviving a violent attack on their family. They need all their wits, endurance and resources to stay ahead of their pursuers as they flee Mexico and head “el norte” to seek refuge in the United States.
Lydia, a bookstore owner, and her journalist husband Sebastian live a comfortable life in Acapulco. But Lydia’s developing relationship with her patron Javier and Sebastian’s investigations into drug cartels uproot that life when the horrific attack forces Lydia and Luca’s migration.
Along the way Lydia and Luca are joined by a cast of characters who represent those who flee the poverty, abuse and crime of their own countries and who hope to have a better life elsewhere. Together they make the harrowing journey North riding “La Bestia” (jumping on the tops of trains), paying a smuggler, and dealing with hunger, thirst, violence and border patrols as they journey toward the border.
American Dirt is a powerful and compelling story of the sacrificial bond between a mother and child. But it’s also a timely novel, raising issues around factors that drive people to flee their countries and undertake the perilous journeys and closed borders for the pursuit of a better life.
An Oprah book club selection, the novel was published with much fanfare in early 2020 and billed by Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros as “the great novel of las Americas.” Cummins, who was previously modestly published, received a seven figure advance as a result of an auction among nine publishers.
Unexpectedly, the publication caused quite a backlash against the author and the publishers. A scathing blog post by writer Myriam Gurba, who called it “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf,” sparked the controversy. Even the author’s notes were criticized as Cummins herself voiced a fear that her privilege would make her “blind to certain truths.” Her reference to “the faceless brown mass” was an attempt to explain her desire to tell a unique personal story that would honour all the unheard stories, but was criticized as offensive.
In a two-part book club episode Oprah, along with Jeanine Cummins and guests, “leaned into the conversation” to gain more understanding. The novel opened Oprah up to feeling the fear and desperation of a mother and child on the run seeking asylum. She said that it successfully created empathy in her, pierced her consciousness, and helped her see differently: all things she looks for when making a book club selection. When questioned about whose voice should be able to tell a story, Oprah defended the right of an author to “use their imagination and their skills to tell stories and to empathize with another story.”
Not only did Cummins come under fire, but so did the publishers. Oprah continued the discussion with writer Julissa Arce, Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda and author Reyna Grande, who herself had crossed the border from Mexico to the United States. Although the panelists criticized some of the plot holes and stereotypes of the novel, they mostly took issue with the overwhelmingly white publishing industry for failing to publish works by Latino authors or to publish them with little fanfare. They challenged the representatives of Macmillan Publishers who were in the audience and admitted to missteps in marketing the book and committed to doing better to seek out Latino authors.
The controversy points to the power that publishers and marketers have in the success of a novel and bringing it to the attention and interest of readers. In the end, however, the reader will make his or her own discoveries and determine whether a book connects them “with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive,” as James Baldwin wrote. In that way, American Dirt powerfully connects readers with suffering people who undertake perilous journeys toward a better life.