Book Report: A Controversial Book–American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

May 11, 2023

When American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was published in 2020 and selected for the Oprah Book Club, controversy erupted. I remember hearing and reading about the objections–that the author who identified as white, although her grandmother was from Puerto Rico, had indulged in stereotypes and didn’t accurately portray the truth of migrant experiences. A conversation arose about who has the right to tell a story, and that conversation continues.

I didn’t rush to read it, but kept the title on my TBR, and there it remained until last week.

I was moved by it, often feeling tears on my cheeks, and I sometimes needed to remind myself to breathe, as I worried about the fate of the characters. One criticism is that it was too easy of a read–a book meant for the screen. I didn’t find it easy on the emotions, however, and should s book be criticized because it eventually, through a long and arduous process, finds its way to the screen? (American Dirt has not yet been translated to film, by the way.)And just because a book is a page-turner does that make it any less worthwhile?

The main character is Lydia who owns a bookstore in Acapulco. Her husband Sebastien is a journalist who writes about Mexican cartels, and he and many members of their family are murdered after he writes a particularly incriminating article. Lydia and her young son, Luca, realize they need to flee because one of her customers is head of a cartel, although initially she was not aware of that fact, and he has fallen in love with her. The bulk of the novel is their harrowing movement towards el norte. I read the chapters describing the dangers of accessing and traveling, illegally, of course, the trains called La Bestia, with my mouth open and my heart pounding.

I rooted for Lydia and Luca and for some of their companions as they did what they needed to do to escape. The ethical and moral issues raised are as harrowing as the physical dangers and demands. I realize that this is one picture, one story, one perspective, but the depiction of fear and strength and hope seems authentic.

Something to Think About: Two Passages

The first passage is about Luca, the remarkable young son, learning about his own situation. Rebeca, mentioned in the section, is a teenage girl also trying to get to el norte.

As Rebeca reveals what scraps of story she does have to Luca, he starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well-educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond. Some, like Rebeca, share their stories carefully, selectively, finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers. Other migrants are like blown-open grenades, telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet, dispensing their pain like shrapnel so they might one day wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would feel like to blow up like that. But for now he remains undetonated, his hours sealed tightly inside, his pin fixed snugly in place.

p. 166

We are invisible, Luca says to himself, and he closes his eyes. We are desert plants. We are rocks. He breathes deeply and slowly, taking care that his chest doesn’t rise and fall with the cycle of the breath. The stillness is a kind of meditation all migrants must master. We are rocks, we are rocks. Somos piedras. Luca’s skin hardens into a stony shell, his arms become immovable, his legs permanently fixed in position, the cells of his backside and the bottoms of his feet amalgamate with the ground beneath him. He grows into the earth. No part of his body itches or twitches, because his body is not a body anymore, but a slab of native stone. He’s been stationary in this place for millennia. This silk tassel tree has grown up from his spine, the indigenous plants have flourished and died here around his ankles, the fox sparrows and meadowlarks have nested in his hair, the rains and winds and sun have beaten down across the rigid expanse of his shoulders, and Luca has never moved. We are rocks.

p. 333

I think this book is well worth reading. At the same time I have no doubt there are major discrepancies in the white publishing world and that people of color do not get deserved recognition or financial support and payment in the same way that white writers do. Perhaps the debate about this book will make a difference.

An Invitation

What authors and books about migrants and immigration do you recommend? I would love to know.

6 thoughts on “Book Report: A Controversial Book–American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

  1. Nancy~ I read this book when it first came out with many of your same emotions. Then came the controversy. I find it even more apropos this week when the local news is telling me that +250 migrants per DAY have started arriving in Denver, again, with no more places to shelter them. Again. They are ready to work but cannot get a work visa until the 60 day waiting period ends. I found American Dirt to be a fascinating read that has stayed with me all this time later. Thanks for the review. More later~ B.


    • Such a multifaceted problem, and I think the book is an indication of how a novel can enlighten and raise the issues. I ache for all those who have needed to flee their homeland and now face more uncertainty and turmoil.


  2. I read this novel some time ago and found it riveting. I couldn’t quite understand the criticism re: the author not being able to tell the story of the immigrants because she was not one of them. I felt as if she was able to empathize with their plight and their harrowing journeys. The criticism somehow reminded me of the book “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. After having gotten through reading a good portion of it , I was shocked to find out that the author was male.! So to my mind, just because you are of one nationality, sex,etc. that should not prevent you from writing from a different perspective.
    I really was emotionally invested in the story.


  3. I remember feeling the same way about Wally Lamb and She’s Come Undone. I just gave American Dirt to our granddaughter and I will be eager to hear her perspective about the book and the controversy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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