I knew there was some controversy about the book American Dirt and that many people were upset with Oprah Winfrey for choosing it for one of her book club discussions. But…… a friend told me it was a riveting story and so I decided to read it without going on online and learning about why the book had received such fierce criticism.
American Dirt tells the story of a young woman Lydia and her son Luca who flee from Acapulco in Mexico to the United States after their husband and father Sebastian, who is a journalist, is murdered along with sixteen members of their family. The massacre occurs because Sebastian publishes an in-depth profile of a Mexican cartel leader. Lydia and Luca head north to the United States pursued by cartel members. Along the way, they meet many other migrants and we learn to know them as memorable characters too.
American Dirt was, as my friend suggested a page-turner. I was invested in the characters and the story. I was kept in nerve-wracking suspense that made me desperately want to turn to the last chapter to see if Lydia and Luca were going to make it. I knew from television documentaries and news stories that coming from Central America and trying to get into the United States is a horrific experience for undocumented immigrants but the book made me feel that horror in a visceral way.
When I finished the book I started to read the criticisms. The first was that the book gives the impression the United States is some kind of safe utopia for migrants, which it is not, especially since the advent of the Trump administration. The second was that it paints Mexico as this horrible place where there is no peace or stability, a place so much worse than the United States. Having holidayed in Mexico for two months in 2019 I know this is not a complete picture and given the current political situation in the United States ‘stability’ is certainly not the word that comes to mind.
A third criticism is that the author of American Dirt Jeanine Cummins is not from Central America. She is not a migrant so she has no right to tell this story because she hasn’t experienced it first hand. I am not sure I agree with that, but critics say that although Cummins did years of research for her book those who have actually made the journey north to enter the United States illegally, can point out example after example in her book that demonstrates its lack of authenticity.
I think the subject of forced migration deserves our time and attention because as political conditions and climate conditions change the massive forced migration already happening on our planet will only swell. There are all kinds of authors who are writing about their immigration journeys from personal experience and it is important to read their stories. Does a fictional novel like American Dirt take away attention from their more authentic accounts?
American Dirt tells a good story and I enjoyed it immensely as a novel. I am not sorry I read it. But I am also aware that the issue of forced migration is far more complex and nuanced than the book portrays. Reading American Dirt motivated me to take the issue of forced migration more seriously and prompted me to want to learn more about it. That is not a bad thing.
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