Jeanine Cummins - American Dirt

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Selected in January 2020 for Ophrah Winfrey's book club, American Dirt tells the story of a mother fleeing from her home in Acapulco with her small son. Her husband and multiple members of her family have been gunned down by members of a drug cartel.

The book caused some controversy with the author being accused of "brownface" and "cultural appropriation" for having the temerity to write a novel narrated by someone from a different race. This didn't spoil the book for me - I revelled in the story, the journey and the constant jeopardy experienced by the pair as they escape towards the American border, all the time evading the clutches of the cartel boss who may or may not be tracking their movements.

I enjoyed the different characters they met on their journey and there were heartwarming moments to savour as well as the nail-biting sequences where capture or accidental injury or even death seemed inevitable. There are several very frightening scenes involving travel on "La Bestia" - the goods train which travels the length of Mexico towards the border. Immigrants travel on the roof of the train and have to be constantly on the lookout for low bridges and border patrols, among other dangers. Boarding and disembarking the moving train is particularly difficult and caused many heart in the mouth moments for me.

There is some commentary on President Trump's tightening of border controls and the inhumane treatment of mothers and children detained at the border but is brought in as background colour and doesn't become the main thrust of the story.

Read this book for the story of the journey, the bonding of mother and son, the kindness of strangers and the uncertainty of deciding who to trust. It's a harrowing story but I found it compulsive and enjoyable.

480 pages

Published 2020

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