The book opens with a mass-shooting at a family gathering in Acapulco, Mexico. Luca, eight years old, is in the toilet. His mother, who has been waiting in the corridor, bundles him into the shower enclosure and “is clinched around him like a tortoise shell”.
Lydia stays clinched and quiet as a murderer comes in to piss; as they escape past their slaughtered family; and as she and Luca flee from the city. She stays clinched to her son through the long journey from home to a place they can live safely: America. They join the vast exodus of the displaced, most who have been brutalised by gangs, on the caravan north. She holds Luca tightly. He is the only one left.
Before the massacre, Lydia had owned a bookshop. Her joy at discovering an erudite reader led her to a friendship with a regular customer, Javier. Lydia’s husband had been a journalist. He wrote about the local cartel and it’s charismatic leader, Javier. Lydia learns her friend is the leader of the cartel just before he wipes out her family and sends his men to catch Lydia and bring her back. Other than sheer psychopathy, the reason for his derangement comes late in the story.
The guts of the book follows Lydia and Luca on the run. They team up with two dangerously beautiful girls (dangerous for the girls, though you get the impression plainer faces wouldn’t have saved them from their horrific ordeals), and other characters, all with their stories about why they ride la bestia, the trains that speed north as immigrants leap onto the roof. Their stories are different but the cause is the same: the corruption of society by drug cartels and gangsters. Lydia and Luca eventually must entrust their lives to El Chacal. “El Chacal has never read academic theories of trauma psychology, but he has seen a thousand different varieties of it here in the desert. He is, in every practical sense, an expert in the field.”
I found American Dirt a fascinating read, particularly because I know so little about the refugees from Mexico to the USA from the southerners’ view. I have recommended it to many friends, all of whom thought it a harrowing and compelling story. It gives an insight to the human issues on the United States/Mexican border.
Jeanine Cummins does have her detractors. There is the expected old chestnut about appropriating someone else’s narrative: she is white, she is Latino; she had done her research, she has stereotyped the country and its people. She is accused of neither representing middle class Mexican women nor Mexican gangsters. Her book events were cancelled and Cummins threatened with violence. Give over. The novel is fiction. It doesn’t purport to represent the entire culture of a nation. I realise I am not reading a news report. It’s an imaginary story with imaginary people set in a very real situation and place.
Stephen King says it is “One hell of a novel” and I agree with him.