American Dirt: a Controversial Book You Should Read
As I stood facing the white built-in bookshelves that line the back wall of my family room, separated by an old brick fireplace, I ran my fingers along the hundreds of spines of books stored there. Some were placed horizontally, stuffing the empty spaces above the rows and rows of books. The book I was looking for, a book my mom recommended to me many months ago, was lying horizontally, above both a Twilight book and a parenting book whose names I cannot recall. It was to be my fourteenth book of the year, or my seventh book this month alone. I finger the cover, lumpy with gaps of air, torn at the corners despite its relatively new age. Settling down on the nearby couch, I open the front cover of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and begin.
That was six days ago. Today, as I write this recap of a book that now ranks among my favorites (the Harry Potter series and Little Women), I feel the slightest bit different. That feeling you get after watching a movie or reading a book, the feeling you can’t really name but you know it’s there. The book, which was released back in January and an Oprah’s Book Club book, follows a bookstore owner Lydia and her geography-loving son Luca as they escape from the drug cartel violence that looms in Acapulco, Mexico. It follows the journey of migrants, making their way to the border in search of safety and a better life.
I loved the book, I’ll have to admit. The prose, the characters, the descriptions, the action, the story. I loved it all, and I couldn’t put it down for six days. Stephen King called the book “extraordinary”, saying that it was “a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other”. The book has been quite controversial, though, as Latinx all around the country begged Oprah to remove it from her list. They stated that the book did not fully cover or represent the struggles of the immigrants, but more significant was the debate regarding the race of the author. Jeanine Cummins is not Mexican, and many were frustrated that someone, who would never experience or relate to the story the way a Latinx would, wrote the book. Even Cummins wrote in her author’s note in the back of the book that she wished someone “slightly browner” had written it, a phrase she has later called clumsy. Latinx authors claimed that they felt unimportant because the publishing industry valued Cummins’ immigrant story over their own. Readers argued that Cummins dehumanized the migrants in the story and that the book itself felt as if it was written by an outsider. But Oprah still defended her decision, calling on her belief that anyone can write a story and use their imagination, and discussed both sides of the argument.
Nonetheless, I still encourage you to read the book, because I felt that most aspects of the novel were well-planned out, and the constant thrill and action keep me hanging off the edge of my seat. As a Latina myself with parents who immigrated from Brazil as teenagers (I understand that I am not fully capable of critiquing and judging this book as other members of the Latinx community who relate to the story more closely), I do hope you read the book. Whether you choose to read this book or not, I hope you keep the criticisms of the Latinx community fresh in mind and allow yourself to formulate your own opinion.