During the opening pages of American Dirt you will immediately find yourself in another world. It’s a visceral, gut wrenching scene where Lydia, shields her son in the bathroom as her entire family is killed. They had gathered to celebrate her niece’s quinceañera (15th birthday) and in an instant, 16 members of her family have been gunned down in cold blood.
Lydia is a middle class Mexican bookshop owner. She is married to Sebastian, a journalist and is the mother of eight year old Luca. They live in Acapulco, a city that has seen a substantial rise in violent crime alongside the presence of drug cartels.
Unknown to Lydia, one of her loyal bookshop customers, Javier, is also the kingpin of the Acapulco’s leading drug cartel. When Lydia’s husband anonymously publishes an expose profiling the local drug lord, there is swift retaliation.
Following the brutal mass murder, Lydia knows they must try and outrun the cartel whose influence stretches across Mexico. Nowhere in Mexico is safe and if they have any chance of survival they will need to head north and attempt to cross the border into the United States of America.
In a moment of pure desperation, Lydia makes the decision to stay alive at all costs. Without time to return home or even bury her family, Lydia and Luca flee. With no money or papers and a machete strapped to her leg, raw fear keeps her on the run. This includes countless days walking, evading cartels, avoiding authorities, surviving scorching desert heat, hunger, cruelty and riding La Bestia (The Beast).
The notorious La Bestia is a network of freight trains and every year, thousands of migrants dangerously travel north on the roof of La Bestia. It is their only option in an attempt to evade land based authorities, checkpoints and the cartels. Many unlucky riders are killed or maimed beneath its wheels. More than once, Lydia and Luca board the fast moving trains, scrambling on as stowaways. Along the way, they meet fellow migrants, including two Honduran teenage sisters escaping sexual exploitation. Will Lydia and Luca have the strength to stay on the run or will they be picked up by authorities or worse, the cartel?
American Dirt is a compelling story of survival and is a novel of our times. It powerfully reflects the current crisis at many of the world’s borders. However, American Dirt is timeless in its handling of empathy, grief, kindness and love.
Lydia and Luca’s harrowing journey is the story of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Author, Jeanine Cummins humanises the migrant crisis by showing the perilous lengths people will go to.
“It took me four years to research and write this novel, so I began long before talk about migrant caravans and building a wall entered the national zeitgeist,” she says in her author’s note.
Jeanine was appalled at the way Latino migrants were characterised and how moral or humanitarian concerns were excluded, she explains.
“At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamouring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”
Jeanine Cummins is the author of The Outside Boy, The Crooked Branch and A Rip in Heaven. Jeanine is a US citizen from a family of mixed cultures and ethnicities. In 2005, she married an undocumented immigrant.
Reviewer: Andrea Molloy Hachette, RRP $34.99