The debate rages on: does an artist have the right to create something even though it is outside of their lived experience? My answer is always going to be yes, otherwise how do I justify the ten-plus years I wrote vampire fanfiction? I mean, I’ve never met a vampire let alone had sex with one. Jeanine Cummins found herself in the middle of a maelstrom after the release of her novel American Dirt.
Vulture magazine did a whole piece tracing the controversy about the book which “has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family.” The entire article is worth the read because it explains the whole situation much more succinctly than I could.
One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes.
Thus begins the story of Luca, 8, and his mother, Lydia. At a family barbecue to celebrate Luca’s cousin Yenifer’s 15th birthday, the entire family (with the exception of Luca and Lydia) are gunned down. It is immediately apparent to Lydia who is responsible. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist and he has recently published a piece about Javier Fuentes, the most powerful drug lord in Acapulco. Javier and Lydia had also become friends, not lovers exactly, but there is definitely an intimacy between them born from their love of literature. (Lydia owns a bookstore.) Lydia had no idea who Javier was when she met him; she saw him only as a kindred spirit, someone with whom she could talk “about literature and poetry and economics and politics.”
It was just as Lydia had always hoped life in her bookstore would be one day. In between the workaday drudgery of running a business, that she would entertain customers who were as lively and engaging as the books around them.
Javier’s cartel, Los Jardineros aka The Gardeners, earned their name because they “used guns only when they didn’t have time to indulge their creativity. Their preferred tools were more intimate: spade, ax, sicle, hook, machete. The simple tools of hacking and trenching.”
After the massacre, Lydia takes Luca and runs. She has no choice; she knows that Javier will not rest until she and her son are dead too. The novels traces their arduous journey from their ruined home to the United States, seen here as a beacon of freedom and hope – but, of course, knowing what we know now about undocumented immigrants, perhaps not so much. Still, Lydia feels as though she has only one choice and so they run.
Of course, what does a middle-class business owner know about fleeing under the radar? Not too much. I think the book expects us to believe that because she is protecting her son, she is willing to do just about anything. She’s a quick study because she has to be. She doesn’t dwell too long on the fact that she didn’t see the red flags waving around Javier; she trusts her gut now as the two make their way to el norte.
It’s a gruesome trip. Lydia knows that the cartel has eyes everywhere and that Javier won’t stop until he finds them. Along the way, they meet other migrants with stories of their own. Sisters Soledad and Rebeca are particularly sympathetic.
I enjoyed the book. I guess that’s my white, middle-age, privilege talking, but I found it hard to put down. Criticism claims that there are many inaccuracies, and of course I couldn’t tell you what they are. All I can tell you is that I was wholly invested in Lydia and Luca’s journey and that I tore through the book.