Running from the Devil: American Dirt

So. This book has getting a little attention.

Jeanine Cummins’ novel, “American Dirt” hit the proverbial jackpot when it received the Oprah bump a few weeks back, selected as a 2020 Book Club read.

It has also been at the center of a publishing firestorm, which is well summarized here. The story of a Mexican woman and her young son on the run from a cartel boss, written not by a person of Mexican heritage, but of a white woman with Latin roots.

I bought the book a day before I started hearing and reading about the uproar. I debated whether or not to read it. But I forged ahead for two reasons — one, a friend asked me if I hadn’t heard about the bad press, would I have read it (yes) and two, if I scrupulously vetted every book I read before I read it, I’d never get to actually reading a book.

I’m going to set the controversy aside for a moment to tell you what I think about the story itself. Then I’ll circle back. Because it should be talked about. (And to Oprah’s credit, she is planning to do that.)

Insofar as a book goes, I was completely engaged in the story of Lydia and Luca and their journey from Acapulco to the United States. Once happy members of a large extended family, Lydia owns a bookstore where she befriends someone that her news reporter husband writes about. Readers are aware up front this is not going to end well, so the color and context of these relationships comes from Lydia’s narration, bringing the reader up to speed as she and her son flee for their lives.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a company of characters drawn from what may or may not be embellished caricatures of what we would imagine the migrant journey to include. (I have no firsthand knowledge and won’t pretend that I do.) Other migrants on the run. Guardian angels. Bad guys working for the cartels. The police. Border patrol. Paid guides (coyotes) that take people over the border.

Cummins draws several of the characters closer in to Lydia and Luca — specifically, Soledad and Rebeca, two sisters also on the run from gang violence. I’m not sure if the result was intentional, but it’s the escape after losing one family that led Lydia and Luca to form another. And there are all the emotions that come with that, when you read for pleasure. A lot of angst. A lot of sadness. A lot of hope for something better for these characters that deserve more than they got from life so far. Emotional connections are part of a universal common language, and Cummins uses those extremely well. You will care about these people.

If you treat the book as a thriller, like you would a Tom Clancy or Lee Child novel, then it’s likely you too will find yourself turning the pages to see if Lydia makes it out of Mexico alive.

You might also find yourself repulsed at the violence. Conflicted with Lydia’s role in the event that leads to her treacherous journey. Cynical about the practicalities of a few of the scenes. (I have a hard time believing any hospital is doling out the kind of information it did to two strangers on the phone.)

But I won’t lie — it was a good read. At least, for me.

Which brings us back to the controversy.

It would be really easy to sit back and say, “Well, I am not going to fault someone for telling a good story and say it’s crap just because the person who told it was white. Men have written female narratives, women have written male narratives … I mean c’mon. It’s just a story.”

And … yeah. I’m not blacklisting any writer that chooses to tell a story that isn’t exclusive of their personal knowledge mindset.

But.

The book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” has made a huge impact on me in how I approach these conversations. For when you come from a place of understanding that white privilege is at the heart of the white community’s daily existence, it makes understanding why some people could have some pretty significant issues with the book.

Someday, I do want to write a book. Someday. But when that day comes, while I may research what it’s like to live in Oslo or crowdsource commonly-used slang in Milwaukee (“It’s a bubbler, dummy.”), or I might talk regularly with a police detective or an ER nurse to get certain details right, I can’t fathom a scenario that involves me writing from a person of color’s perspective because there is no possible way I can properly relate to that.

And I can see getting more than mildly irritated if Oprah put her book club sticker on a novel that brings to life the ins and outs of parenting a special needs child only to find out the writer doesn’t even have kids. Yeah. That might get me a little ragey.

So, while I am not going to actively dissuade anyone from reading “American Dirt,” I would encourage readers that are not Mexican migrants running from a drug cartel to keep their reaction to the story in perspective — that perspective being, “I have no way of knowing if all the aspects in this thriller are in fact accurate, but if they are then Oh My God this is awful and we should be helping them.”

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