American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt begins with a bang. Literally. A gunshot. Then a lot more.

It’s a quinceañera party, in Acapulco. The massacre’s cause: a newspaper reporter who wrote about a drug cartel boss. Eighteen die. Only his wife Lydia, and her heroic eight-year-old son Luca, escape. Knowing they’re hunted, they become migrants, heading for “El Norte” (America).

Lydia had owned a bookstore; formed a deep bond with a customer who’s a real book lover and (bad) poet. He was in love with her. He’s the cartel boss.

This was one of those books I had to put down every so often, to hold my head in my hands. Sometimes I had a hard time resuming. Had to remind myself, this is fiction. Yet knew, too, its reality.

Literature is about the human heart and soul. This book exemplifies it. From the first words, the reader confronts two human beings in extraordinary trauma, knowing they face a terrible ordeal ahead. Does it matter they’re Mexican?

For some it does. The book prompted a firestorm of criticism for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white American write a novel depicting Mexicans? This doctrine of the politically correct woke left elevates identity politics to a new height. As if a violator steals something from whom they portray.

It first came to the fore with a painting in the Guggenheim Museum based on the famous Emmett Till open-casket photo, showing his mutilation. The artist’s intent was to spotlight the injustice. But she was white. Oops. Horrors. Not only were there demands for the painting’s removal. They wanted it destroyed.

There’s a spate of polemics calling upon whites to get past their whiteness, or some such incoherent notion. Demanding wokeness. What could be more woke than trying to evoke tears for Emmett Till? You’d think. But no. Destroy that painting.

I’ve discussed this before; also in reviewing Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue. The watchword is “stay in your lane.” Of course that doesn’t apply to non-white artists or writers portraying whites. But otherwise, Boyers points out, “stay in your lane” applied strictly would mean white writers limited to memoir only.

This is why I make a point of literature being about the human heart and soul. That’s what Cummins is engaged in — very powerfully. Had the “cultural appropriation” cops been always with us, we’d have scant literature altogether.

Stating the obvious, the novel’s characters are human beings. Just like you and me, with joys and sufferings just like ours — no, of course not, far deeper. Even reading this with stomach clenched, it wasn’t possible for me to get my head around their extreme experience.

These are the migrants Trump and his minions so despise. Dehumanizing those whose humanness far excels their own. Any one of those migrants, with the capabilities and grit to surmount all the horrible pitfalls, and actually make it to our border, puts to shame the Americans who hate them. Those migrants have qualities that make our country great. I wish we could swap out the one group for the other.

Of course this is the import of the book’s title. Many Americans call these people “dirt.” I thought it could also mean “American soil” — something confirmed near the end.

The book does spotlight that migrants entering America, instead of receiving Good Samaritan treatment, succor and sanctuary, are today met with yet more vicious cruelty. Their children confiscated — many toddlers, even babies — many likely never to be reunited with parents. Being thusly separated from Luca is a big fear for Lydia, once they do get across the border. I used to be so proud of my country. I look forward to that pride’s restoration. Though our humane new president will have his work cut out to unwind the vile policies put in by his predecessor — American Dirt.

No — not American. Just plain Dirt.

Also as shown in this book, what ruined Acapulco, and so much else in the world, is the insane war on drugs. Doing vastly more harm than it could ever prevent, even if it did stop drug use, which it cannot. When will this madness end?

Yet I am an optimist, a believer in progress. Grounded in most people being good. It’s not a faith; it’s empirical, based on an understanding of the scientific evolutionary reasons why it’s so, as well as a lifetime of experience. Some actors in this book are very bad indeed. But most are good. Throughout Lydia’s and Lucas’s ordeal, made gut-wrenching by those bad people, they encounter far more who are good. But for whom they’d be dead. It could almost be a fairy story.

On a lighter note — I visited Acapulco once. In 1973, when the very name connoted carefree tourism. Before the criminality that has almost destroyed the place. I went there with a girl on what was literally a blind date. But one crime did take place.

The much tonier hotel next to ours was the Club de Pesca. On a lark we snuck in there just to sit by the pool. A waiter came by; we ordered a little something. Later, bringing the bill, he said to just sign with our room number. So I did.

Ah, youth.

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