Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Wednesday, August 21, 2019: Maximum Shelf: American Dirt

Flatiron: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Flatiron: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Flatiron: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Flatiron: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt

by Jeanine Cummins

Lydia Quixano Perez is jolted from her comfortable middle-class existence in Acapulco when she becomes the target of a drug cartel boss's wrath. His reach is far and his influence is wide. Mexico is no longer safe for Lydia. She's left with no choice but to flee for her life and that of her eight-year-old son, Luca. So they head for the United States and the hope of refuge. Jeanine Cummins (A Rip in Heaven; The Crooked Branch) tells the harrowing story of their journey with chilling detail and a pace as urgent as her characters' predicament. American Dirt is a novel chronicling the determination of those seeking a chance at life in a world doing everything it can to ravage them.

Before their lives are turned upside down, Lydia enjoys her days running a bookshop in Acapulco. They become even better when a new customer shows interest in some of her favorite books. Their conversation at the check-out counter turns into an invitation for her patron, Javier, to return so they can discuss books. One visit turns into two, and soon into weekly visits and a budding friendship.

Until Lydia learns the identity of her fellow booklover: he is the jefe of Los Jardineros, a Mexican drug cartel.

Lydia's husband, Sebastián, is a journalist. As the people of Acapulco grow numb to the violence consuming their city, he works tirelessly to report it, attempting to keep the atrocities from becoming normalized. He and Lydia take precautions when he publishes stories, but the cartel doesn't show much interest in Sebastián or his work. However, an exposé on Javier changes all that and forces Lydia out of the only life she's ever known.

Cummins puts her readers up close and personal as Lydia and Luca navigate life as refugees. Her attention to the minutiae renders a feeling of authenticity as well as terror. Where will they sleep, and will they stay safe when they do; how can they access money without drawing attention to themselves; and who can they trust in their efforts to stay alive--these are all problems they must face. Mother and son, accustomed to the comforts and amenities middle-class life affords them, must come to grips with who they are now: "When the idea first occurred to her as she squatted in the shade of the oficina del registro civil, it occurred as camouflage: they could disguise themselves as migrants. But now that she's sitting in this quiet library with her son and their stuffed backpacks, like a thunderclap, Lydia understands that it's not a disguise at all. She and Luca are actual migrants... that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs."

Especially daunting are Cummins's scenes involving la Bestia, the train Lydia and Luca must jump in order to make their way north. There are many dangers associated with the train, but the first is simply getting on it. One false move and the journey is over permanently. Two young Honduran sisters teach Lydia and Luca the art of boarding la Bestia and become their traveling companions. Soledad and Rebeca are running from their own monsters and, as young Luca learns bits and pieces of their story, "he starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity which exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well-educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering with them on top of that train and into el norte beyond."

Violence, kidnapping, theft, Cummins paints all of the horrors of the migrant's ordeal with such realism readers can't help but feel a dreadful sense of anxiety. When the travelers are cornered by corrupt police officers, a curtain of darkness envelops the story: "There are at least four policía standing in the back of each truck, plus more inside, and they're all kitted out like they're going to war.... They wear boots and kneepads and helmets and giant, studded Kevlar vests and gloves and dark black visors so you can't see their eyes, and their faces are entirely covered by black balaclavas. Each one of them has weapons strapped all over his body and... Luca can't even begin to imagine what they'd need all that weaponry for, just to catch a few migrants...." Contrasting the diabolical image of the police, Cummins infuses her protagonists with humanity--a mother's will to protect her son, a bond between sisters, the pain of shattered innocence--forcing her audience to see the individuals and their struggles rather than a fabricated security threat.

American Dirt will punch you in the gut one minute and fill you with hope the next. The stirring descriptions, complex characters and heart-pounding race to stay alive combine for a gripping plot, while the themes of injustice and human determination take it to a much higher level than an average thriller novel. This is an important story being told at a vital point in time. On one hand it's a single woman's plight, but on the other, it's the human condition. Powerful! --Jen Forbus

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 400p., 9781250209764, January 21, 2020

Flatiron: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Jeanine Cummins: Tackling Injustice Through Fiction

(photo: Joe Kennedy)

Jeanine Cummins was born in Spain, but calls Gaithersburg, Md., her home. She studied creative writing at Towson University before living in Belfast for several years. In 1997, Cummins moved to New York City, where she spent 10 years working in the publishing industry. After her first book, the memoir A Rip in Heaven, became a bestseller, she turned to writing full time. She is the author of the novels The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch. Her novel American Dirt will be published January 21, 2020, by Flatiron Books.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always dreamed of being a writer, but I didn't grow up with any sense that it was possible to make a living that way. My mom was a nurse and my dad was in the Navy. My grandfather was a professional musician, but even that seemed gritty, like a real job. He carried a tuba and bass around, which felt like tools to me. So I always thought I'd end up doing something practical. I thought I'd be a park ranger or a carpenter who submitted poems to local newspaper contests. But then my cousin Julie was murdered when I was 16. She was supposed to be the writer. So I think losing her, losing her talent, and understanding that the life she was supposed to live was no longer available to her, made me super determined to live out the dream we both shared, as if I had to do it now, for both of us. I like the idea that some of her flame may have landed on me when she departed.

In several interviews for your novel The Crooked Branch, you mention starting your book on immigration, but very differently. How did it evolve to its present state?

I'd like to say that it was meticulously planned and that its evolution was organic and beautiful, but the truth is that I wrote two failed drafts of this novel before it became what it needed to be. I was resistant, initially, to writing from the point of view of a Mexican migrant because, no matter how much research I did, regardless of the fact that I'm Latinx, I didn't feel qualified to write in that voice. Because these are not my life experiences. So I spent several years trying to write the book from a variety of perspectives, and all those perspectives failed. They were terrible. Because, ultimately, they were an inappropriate lens for the telling of this story.

But Luca emerged from that early cast of characters. My friend Mary Beth Keane kept pointing to him and saying, "He's the only one I care about." God bless her. I finally listened. I was terrified of going back to his origin story, of trying to truly inhabit the experiences of his life. But I did it as carefully as I could. And I'm glad I did. Because ultimately I remembered the thing that matters most in fiction: they are people. I do know Luca and Lydia; I know their lives. Because I know grief. I know trauma. So that's the thing. Yes, Luca and his mami happen to be Mexican, but they could be anyone. They could be Syrian or Rohingya or Haitian. They are human beings.

There are many emotionally powerful scenes in American Dirt. How did you go about creating these experiences in the book?

My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey is magnificent. So is The Beast by the Salvadoran writer Óscar Martínez. Then I went to Mexico. I spent time in the borderlands, both north and south of la frontera. I met people who are documenting human rights abuses at the border, people who drive out and leave water in the desert, lawyers who provide pro bono legal representation to unaccompanied minors. I visited two orphanages and several migrant shelters in Mexico. I volunteered at a desayunador in Tijuana, where they serve a hot meal to something like 300 migrants for free every day. I talked to people who were deep in their journeys, full of hope and fear. I met people recently deported, some of whom were veterans.

I met deported mothers who visited their U.S. citizen children at the border fence where only the tips of their fingers could touch through the thick metal screens. I even attended a wedding at Friendship Park where the deported bride married her U.S. Marine husband on the Mexico side of the fence, so her mother and U.S. citizen children could attend on the California side of the fence. I met a Guatemalan man whose leg was cut off when he fell from the train three days before he arrived at the Casa de Migrante in Tijuana. Every single person I met made me more and more determined to write this book. So, yes, many of the scenes were inspired by true stories I encountered in my research.

You started writing American Dirt before the current administration took office. Did their practices affect your writing and if so, how?

I started the research for this book in 2013, so way before anyone dreamed that the impetuous star of Celebrity Apprentice would become president of the United States. This problem pre-dated the current administration and, unfortunately, it will still be here after their time is up. But to be sure, the callousness is new. So there have probably been other presidents who felt some private disdain for the suffering of people who don't look like them, but the public expression of that scorn in the 21st century is still incredibly shocking to me. It's not only that the practices of the current administration are cruel, it's that they are gleefully so. It's unthinkable that the leader of our nation, which is supposed to be a symbol of hope and refuge in the world, is responding to the deaths of children in U.S. custody by tweeting things like "If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come." [sic] He doesn't recognize that the United States has a moral obligation to meet a humanitarian crisis with compassion. So, yes, that brutality has certainly intensified my feelings of panic about the crisis. Watching the president shrug and smile while so many people are dying needlessly on his watch makes me feel antagonized. I have a greater and greater sense of urgency about telling this story with each passing day.

If you could ensure that every reader would take away one thing from American Dirt, what would it be?

Migrants are human beings. They don’t need our pity or contempt. They deserve fundamental human empathy. They are LIKE US. --Jen Forbus

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