So I’m interrupting my afternoon project of sewing some face masks – because that is where we are at, friends – to bring you this report on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Believe it or not, at one point this novel occupied something of a spotlight in news and culture circles (this in the time before all of our thoughts were cannibalized by The Plague), as readers, reviewers and cultural critics wrung hands about cultural appropriation (and to a lesser extent, good writing).
The basics of the hoopla are covered here, with parts of it owing to the selection of the book by Oprah and Reese for their bookclubs and the rhapsody of their reviews pointing to how the book ‘opened their eyes’ to the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants/refugees and the extreme journey required to make it to the safety of America (which, sidebar, not to judge, but to judge, is a little surprising that it took this novel to raise to awareness this catastrophe of violence). When proper readers got ahold of the book there were questions about the authority of Cummins to write the story – could she take on the voice of a Mexican migrant without being one herself? Other reviewers simply wondered at the quality of the writing – why such praise for a book that was, at best, mediocre in its writing? A final pocket of complaint focused on the way the novel drains history and politics from the plot: we witness mother and son flee a murderous drug cartel for the safety of the U.S. with all but the flimsiest consideration of the roots of violence both within Mexico, the incredibly fraught space of the border and then America itself.
It was this last piece – the missing American plot – that bothered me the most. Sure I was irritated by the one-dimensional characters, the insubstantial emotional depth offered to any of them (like surely I should have some empathy mustered for an eight-year old who has his entire family of 16 murdered in front of him, and yet the book sort of declares this as Traumatic, but doesn’t do any of the literary work to bring the reader into this space, and so we are left forever having to accept on the surface the event as traumatic, without seeing or witnessing or being inside the character’s experience of this loss and rupture), and the plot points that read as clumsily assembled scripted markers from a paint-by-number novel planner. But my biggest irritation was that, for some reason, I expected that the novel would include the arrival in America, and the realization that the vision of safety, security and opportunity that they held up as beacons throughout their journey was… complicated. Sure there is some mention of ICE, and a very shrouded reference to changing experiences at the border with changing politics, but for the duration of the novel America stands as an absolute haven. And I am in no position to question the relative safety of America, or to cast doubt on the difference in fear between fear for your life and fear of deportation, I just found it a frustrating absence – or perhaps rewriting – to see nothing of their lives in America and instead to have the US once against stand in as saviour.
So yes. If you’re about to order a book for curbside/delivery from your local bookstore, please do not choose American Dirt. Wait until your library reopens and order it there, and then you probably should read it so that you can disagree with me, or join a book club and talk about it, or write a pointed letter to Oprah, whatever.