Book Review // “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins

This book is definitely not a light summer read and after finishing the audiobook, I really needed a cheerful novel. More than once, I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps and I wondered how some people can endure all the misery that life throws at them and still make it out of it.

Amercian Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

About the book

“American Dirt” is the story of the bookstore owner and mother, Lydia, and her eight-year-old son Luca, who are forced to flee Acapulco, Mexico, after a terrible tragedy befalls their family. They were living a stable middle-class life but within an hour they become migrants, running away from a place they always called home. What follows is an almost unbearable and unimaginable journey to the north with the hope of a saver life in the US. Not necessarily a better, they were happy in Acapulco, but hopefully a saver one. On the way towards the United States, Lydia and Luca meet other migrants and realize that they all cary their own story, just like them.

About the author

Jeanine Cummins is an American author. She has written four books: a memoir titled A Rip in Heaven and three novels: The Outside Boy, The Crooked Branch, and American Dirt. Born in Spain to a dad in the US Navy, she grew up in the US, worked as a bartender in Northern Ireland after graduation and as a publisher for Penguin in New York City.

The Critics

Naively, I didn’t research the book or the author before listening to the audio book. My choice was based on the Oprah Book Club and only later I realized the several critics around this book.

The author of the book identifies as white, as she stated in an interview in 2015. But in 2019, just before the release of her book, she said that her grandmother was Puerto Rican and she is therefore a Latina. This was not well received and her credibility was strongly questioned.

I think that an appropriate criticism here would be to ask why the book had to be written by a white American woman when there are so many Latin American authors who could tell the story of migrants more authentically, or perhaps even tell their own story? It is not because such authors do not exist, but because they simply receive much less attention.

In my research, I read that the author has travelled to Mexico many times and has dealt with the issue of migrants a lot. From that point of view, it could be seen as journalistic work that she did for this book. I want to give her credit for bringing the horrible fate of migrants to our attention. She turns a political subject, the migrants, into human beings again and I think that’s important. Nevertheless, one should always give a voice to the people who can speak most authentically about it – Latin Americans, refugees, local people, First Nations. They all have a voice and we need to listen to them.

The debate around this book and its author highlights a major problem in the publishing industry: A study from 2019 showed that the overall industry is made up of 76% white while book reviewers were 80% white (slight improvement since the last study in 2015). This leads to the promotion of works from a selectively narrow perspective.

So let’s take this as a reminder to support a diverse book industry and authors who may be overlooked by the big publishing houses. If you have a book title you would like to share, please feel free to leave a comment.

For more book reviews, check out the section “Arts & Culture” here.

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