Monday, March 2, 2020

CRC Blog Analysis on AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins: "A Piece of One's Suffering in American Dirt"

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CRC Blog Analysis 
on American Dirt 
by Jeanine Cummins:
“A Piece of One’s Suffering in American Dirt”

     American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was published by Flatiron Books ( on January 21, 2020; with jacket design by Julianna Lee. 
Cummins is also the author of three New York Times bestsellers:  one a memoir A Rip In Heaven, and two fiction novels about Irish Immigrants:  The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch.

     American Dirt is a novel based on Jeanine Cummins’s research that she conducted for a period of four years, from 2013 to 2017. Jeanine Cummins visited migrant camps throughout Mexico, interviewed illegal immigrants, interviewed victims of the drug cartels, interviewed scholars in the field of Chicana and Chicano Studies, and traveled extensively on both sides of the border.           

     In American Dirt Lydia is a native in her Acapulco, Mexico where she lives a comfortable and fulfilling existence. She is educated, still in love with her journalist husband Sebastian and adores their eight-year-old son Luca, who seems to have autism and is wise beyond his years. She is also close to her large, Catholic, and patriotic family. 
For the past ten years she has been fulfilling her dream by having her own bookstore located in the heart of Acapulco. Her bookstore is stocked with the bestsellers and tourist items such as postcards, magnets and key chains.  

     She also stocks books that have changed her life, books that are in English, books that most people in the area would never want to buy much less bother to read.  Even though they never sell, it gives her great pleasure to know that these books are somewhere hidden in her store.
On a Tuesday, when a mysterious man comes to her store and buys her hidden books Heart, You Bully, You Punk by Leah Hager Cohen and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry, she is pleasantly stunned.  
    For the next 18 months Lydia and Javier Crespo Fuentes have what one could call book club meetings where he comes into her book shop, sits down, she fixes him coffee, and in between customers they discuss the literature books and writers they happen to be reading at the time.  Then Javier reveals to her that he has always wanted to be a poet and shares with her his collection of poems.
     In between these conversations of books, writers, and his poetry, Lydia learns he has a wife of at least 17 years whom he calls the queen of my heart, a mistress whom he calls the queen of my pants, and his daughter Marta, age 16, whom he calls the love of his life and the only thing he did right.  Having children that they adore is another bond in their friendship and only strengthens it.  
     He asks for advice about Marta and even does Skype with Marta on his cell phone in her bookshop. She shares with him the loss of her father due to cancer when she was seventeen years old. He too lost a father that he adored due to cancer when he was only eleven years old.  Lydia finds solace in their friendship, which she embraces wholeheartedly.

she discovered an intimacy she’d seldom experienced outside of family.  There was no feeling of romance on Lydia’s end, but their bond was refreshing.
Pages 32-33

     Her marriage to her beloved husband Sebastian is not the norm even though it is one of fidelity and monogamy. It is a marriage of complete partnership.  He does not lead – they lead together.  Part of what makes their marriage work is to have their own thoughts, own habits and never having to share with one another every single thing, including their platonic friendships with the opposite sex.
One of the things that Lydia and Sebastian don’t talk about in deep detail is their work – specifically Sebastian’s work as a journalist investigating and writing about the drug cartels for the past two years. Lydia knows her husband is aware of many things about the drug cartels; things that she is not aware of; things that most people do not want to be aware of, which explains her naivety.

Most people were like Lydia; they didn’t want to know.  They tried to insulate themselves from the ugliness of the narco violence because they couldn’t handle it.
Page 34

     All that changes when after eighteen months of writing about a drug cartel – her husband finally is able to identify by name and with photograph an actual drug cartel leader.  This is a first and a big step for the journalist; plus a big step for the future readership who will learn once and for all that this is not fiction but real life.  
     The readership will finally see a person’s face and a person’s name of the drug cartel leader known only as The Owl. Sebastian doesn’t mention the Christian name but long after Lydia is sleeping she awakens in the middle of the night, something nagging at her to look into her husband’s computer and see whom the person is.  And it is Javier.   
       Javier reads the article in his expensive car with his expensive chauffeur and the only thing he is slightly upset with is that there is a poem he wrote published in the piece.  He assumes Lydia shared that poem with her husband when in reality Sebastian got the poem from a contest Marta submitted to on behalf of her father.  Javier is very slightly concerned about it but brushes it aside, until April 14th, when he receives a phone call from Marta’s school in Barcelona.

     It is now April 17th and Sebastian and Lydia and their 8-year-old son Luca are all at her mother’s house celebrating her niece and goddaughter Yenifer’s quinceanera. All sixteen members of the family are there and it is a Mexican tradition, patriotic and family affair when they hear an explosion.
     Fortunately, Lydia and Luca are in the bathroom able to hide in the green tiled shower, hidden from the three men, one of whom strides in carrying an AK-47 looks around, uses the restroom, washes his hands, and eats the chicken her now dead husband just grilled only minutes ago.

     Mother and son are the sole survivors of a massacre that left sixteen of their family members dead.  Mother and son are now immigrants fleeing Acapulco to what they hope will be Denver, Colorado where Lydia has a distant relative.
            In the meantime they are supposedly safe in a hotel that Lydia paid cash for.  They feel temporarily safe until she receives a message from Javier basically telling her that she is now the Queen of His Soul and he will guarantee that her suffering will be brief.  Once again the two immediately flee down the stairs just as Javier’s men are exiting the elevator and heading toward her hotel room.
     American Dirt is a page turner that goes faster than the trains that Lydia and Luca have to jump onto as they travel north through Mexico to the United States, risking whatever is left of their lives to save whatever is left from Javier and his men, who have power and strong influence over all of Mexico. 
       Along the way they meet people of Mexico of all walks of life, who help them, who feel their need, who do the slightest of good deed by giving them water, waving, or simply giving them the look of “I’m sorry”, or providing them a place to hide.  
     Lydia learns of an honest coyote, known as El Chacal, who is willing to escort her and Luca across the border at a hefty price.  She and thirteen others led by El Chacal begin the arduous and brutal journey through the desert and mountains and hopefully to the border of the United States.
       Jeanine Cummins (Right) is a master storyteller with an ability to tell this story from numerous points of view without sounding choppy, disruptive, or artificial.  Most of the novel is told through the point of view of Lydia and Luca but we also learn the feelings of Javier, Sebastian, and more importantly the beautiful sisters Soledad and Rebeca, who are truly innocent young girls suffering the upmost traumas.

          At first I thought American Dirt was slang derogatory term referring to the far right political view of immigrants not being worth even dirt.  Then I thought perhaps it was referring to the dirt/land that compromises Mexico and the Untied States, but I was wrong.  In Mexico, individuals never describe the United States as America but simply the United States.  To them America is the entire world – South and North America. Thus American Dirt can be applicable to all immigrants from all countries, fleeing for a variety of different but valid reasons and representing all economic, racial, religious, and political classes. 
     It’s also easy to note that American Dirt – being applicable to South and North America – describes the makeup of all humanity as described in Genesis: For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
          You don’t need to have a special requirement in order to read and understand this book.  The reader doesn’t have to be Mexican, an immigrant, a mother, nor a victim to connect with this book. No one needs to change his or her skin color, his or her nationality to understand this book; all one needs is the ability to become unified with one another without giving up one’s individuality and have the capacity to love and to feel. Jeanine Cummins (Above Left) writes it best when she describes Luca’s views on what makes one an immigrant:

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.
Page 166

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