Book Review: AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt book cover

I am SO fortunate to have gotten my hands on AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins in advance of publication (thanks to my book angel). It was THE way to wind down the reading year: to be totally absorbed in a gut-punch of a book that had me on the edge of my seat, feeling worried, scared, hopeful, despairing; feeling love, seeing the kindness and unkindness of humanity. I was so totally rapt and IN the minds of every single character. This is third-omniscient point of view rendered flawlessly.

American Dirt book coverAs the publisher’s personal note says, “It’s the novel that changes how we think about the world, that changes us in a profound way. American Dirt is one of those rare novels.”

How easily the author could have used this book as a political platform. How easily it could have come across as having a hard-hitting moralistic agenda. What you find here, though, is story. Characters you care about. Situations that leave you holding your breath. To be certain, you will find a compassionate stance about the migrant struggle through a fictionalized account of a woman and her son, but you will also learn about the very real threat at the borders with Mexican cartels, human trafficking and violence.

AMERICAN DIRT is a book about people. I read with great interest because I live in a border state, not far from Mexico. I read with great interest because I was riveted by the writing and the author’s ability to inhabit her characters’ inner thoughts. I’m honestly not sure I’ve read anything like it – a book that took me so deep into the human psyche and had so many twists and turns, my stomach somersaulted. Consider this tense passage:

Lydia doesn’t turn her head. With the precision of a huntress, she can sense his movements with her peripheral vision – when he lifts his flat-brimmed black baseball cap to scratch beneath it, when he leans slightly over the edge of the train car to spit, when he unscrews the cap from his water bottle to take a drink. She wonders if he can feel her anxiety, if her studied nonchalance is biologically ineffective, if her body is shooting off alarm pheromones he can detect. A primal consciousness has sprung up between them. So she’s aware, too, of the ways her own body responds when, on a long stretch of straight, open track, he lifts himself up from this position and moves toward them. Lydia’s heartbeat increases, her pupils dilate, her grip on Luca tightens, indeed all her muscles either constrict or twitch, and her skin prickles with goose bumps. Her palms grow slick and clammy. She lets go of Luca and gropes at the machete strapped to her lower leg beneath her pants.”

As Stephen King says on the book’s cover, “I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish.” Yes. He adds, on the back jacket, “This book will be an important voice in the discussion about immigration and los migrantes. On a micro scale – the story scale, where I like to live – it’s one hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy.”


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