American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Here we bring you a quick summary and review of the now infamous American Dirt. At first glance, this book seems like a fast-paced thriller about survival, both figurative and literal. The lengths one woman will go to ensure her child’s safety blend into themes on processing grief and guilt; sounds like a decent listen, no? Initially, the book was well-received and topped the charts…

…so how and why did this novel go from Oprah’s Book Club darling to demonized as nothing more than bonfire fuel? Let’s find out.

Upon listening, we meet Lydia, a mother living her life in Mexico with her son Luca and her journalist husband who likes to pen exposés on the devious goings-on of drug cartels. Lydia works in a bookshop where she meets and befriends Javier, who is… a leader of a drug cartel? We smell a conflict of interest.

After a cartel-related family tragedy, Lydia and her son Luca go on the run to escape the same tragic fate.

The rest of the book chronicles their harrowing escape and attempts to cross the border into the safety of the US, as well as introduces the friends and foes they meet along the way.

Ok, so why the backlash?

Many people are calling out the book for its lack of nuance and depth when it comes to depicting the Mexican/ Mexican-American experience. For being Mexican-born, Lydia’s experiences and worldview seem more aligned with a tourist perspective. Even more awkward is the shallow and often incorrect presentation of Mexican heritage and customs.

Characters in general, lack depth and are either all evil or all good. Listeners don’t love that the main character is holier-than-thou but also seemingly quite ignorant. Chicana author Myriam Gurba went so far as to say, “Nonetheless, she behaves in gallingly naïve and stupid ways. Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican.” Ouch.

Also questionable is that up until the publication of the novel, Cummins identified as white non-Latina, despite having a Puerto Rican grandmother. After the publication, she identified as a Latina….which like…cool but that’s still not Mexican so…we’re just gonna see ourselves out.

Have a listen and see what you think; do you think it accurately depicts the immigrant experience/ illustrates the complexity and beauty of Mexican heritage?

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