American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
As the end of lockdown approaches, one of the things I have particularly enjoyed and hope to continue is our family book group. We don't meet at set times, but as and when we have all read the book. With regard to choosing a book, we all take it in turns to choose the book. These have often been choices, one of us has read and enjoyed or had seen discussed on Between the Covers. (We discovered Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh after it was featured). American Dirt was my well-read Father in law's choice and having seen this on Instagram everywhere, I was keen to get stuck in.
Plot (from the back of the book)
Lydia Perez owns a bookshop in Acapulco and is married to a fearless journalist. Luca, their 8 year old boy, completes the family. But it only takes a bullet to tear them apart.
In a city in the grip of a drug cartel, friends become enemies overnight and Lydia has no choice but to flee with Luca at her side. North for the border... whatever it takes to stay alive.
The journey is dangerous....Who can be trusted? And what sacrifice is Lydia prepared to make?
American Dirt shines a beam of light into a world where a mother's love for her son and the kindness of strangers might just triumph.
My (Our!) Thoughts
This was not what I was expecting at all! Reading reviews, I fully expected a literary novel providing a comment on the US Immigration policy. Instead it was a brilliant, well-written thriller that at times left me punched in the gut, and at other times uplifted from the kindness of strangers.
Lydia and Luca are wonderfully depicted. Lydia is a woman forced to put her grief for the loss of her family away in a box as she desperately tries to ensure her and Luca's survival. The theme of motherhood is so strong throughout the novel. Lydia makes choices that she ordinarily would not even consider to make sure the pair survive. It is the balance between her instincts as a mother to keep Luca safe, but then forcing them both into dangerous situations to keep them out of the clutches of the cartel. An example of this is jumping onto the top of trains heading North with other migrants, all aware of the consequences of a mis-step on a ladder or a sudden engine stop.
Lydia also becomes a surrogate mother to two sisters, Rebeca and Soledad and Beto, a child who has grown up in a dump. These unlikely strangers form a strong bond.
I adored Luca who is the moral compass of the novel. Far older than his years, but with a strong sense of doing the right thing. It is the small details that seek to remind us he is still a child - keeping and wearing his late father's baseball cap, becoming distraught when he believes he has lost the hat.
Throughout the novel there is a heavy feeling of fear. We feel Javier's presence throughout, whether by the grafitti of his cartel painted on the wall, or the presence of gang member Lorenzo watching Lydia and Luca who remain suspicious of his motives.
This suspicion is explored throughout the novel. It is clear that Lydia and Luca cannot rely on the authorities, too many of them are in the pay of the Cartels. And indeed the worst of the brutality is meted out by individuals in Authority.
But there is goodness in Lydia and Luca's world - a Doctor who stops to help them, a woman who hides them in her shed when the Authorities are looking for migrants and the workers in the desert who leave a water stand out for new arrivals coming into the 'North' escorted by a 'Coyote'. Trust is explored beautifully.
For me, the novel felt like two parts, the first being the slower travel through Mexico to the border, avoiding the Cartels and riding the trains. The second part is the brutal crossing into the US. This is a true descent into hell, at the end a final sucker punch as we lose one beloved character.
We debated the title 'American Dirt'. Was it about the 'Promised Land', a chance to stand on American dirt and be free? Or was it a comment on the perception of Immigrants arriving into the US? People of all classes, professions and abilities seeking better opportunities or in the worst of cases fleeing certain death?
From the start this is a fast-paced thriller with a deeply human story. It's powerful, destroying but ultimately uplifting.
Our next Family Book Club choice is The Courage to be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi.
I'll be back on Friday, in the meantime have a great week.