A mother and her 8-year-old son flee northward from deep in southern Mexico. Hard on their heels is the cartel intent on their murders. Cut off from conventional means of travel, Lydia and little Luca resort to “la bestia,” the perilous freight trains poor migrants to ride to Mexico’s northern border.
At the same time, Soledad and Rebecca, teenage sisters from the mountains of Honduras, are under the curse of their extraordinary beauty. Threatened with rape and enslavement by the narcos that have invaded their idyllic home, they run north by the only means their poverty allows the same dangerous rails that carry Lydia and Luca.
Meeting on the trains by chance encounter, these four join to form a makeshift family on the run. Danger pursues them and threats lie in wait on the long road ahead. Will any of them make it to a new life in Los Estados Unidos?
Jeanine Cummins is a master storyteller, and with material like this, American Dirt is a commanding, exhilarating read. The action is relentless and intense, and Cummins offers gut-wrenching, detailed descriptions of events, situations, emotions, and people.
Consider how Cummins describes the girl Soledad’s remarkable beauty: “Both girls are very beautiful, but the slightly older one is dangerously so. She wears baggy clothing and an intense scowl in a failing effort to suppress that calamitous beauty…The girl is so beautiful she seems almost to glow, more colorful than the landscape in which she sits…it all recedes behind her. Her presence is a vivid throb of color that deflates everything else around her. An accident of biology. A living miracle of splendor. It’s a real problem.”
The unusual beauty of the sisters promises unwanted attention as they flee north without the protection of family.
With equal skill, Cummins describes a mother’s fear of attempting to board a moving train with an 8-year-old, the murderous heat of the Sonoran desert, and the terror induced by the close pursuit of a gang of remorseless killers.
But American Dirt is more than just spectacular storytelling. It is a timely look at those seeking refuge at our southern border. While Lydia, Luca, and the Honduran sisters are fictional characters, it is not hard to imagine that they represent many of the real stories, as well as the
character and heroism, of those fleeing north from the broken societies south of our border.
For her part, Lydia never dreamed that she would be a hero or, for that matter, even a migrant. She often wondered about the migrants before calamity overtook her middle-class existence. “All her life she’s pitied these poor people…She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be …that this is the better option. That these people would leave behind their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.” Suddenly, Lydia and her little boy are among the migrants’ ranks.
Finally, American Dirt suggests an entirely fresh notion of what a hero looks like. The story’s heroes are unexpected and improbable: an 8-year-old boy; two teenage girls; a bookish, middle-class Mexican mom; and a lean coyote who ferries illegals across a hostile desert to a new life.
The reader can’t help but consider what sort of “American” citizens these heroic characters could potentially be. They are people of sterling quality. Rather than degrade the quality of American citizenry, the characters in this book would enhance that citizenry.
American Dirt is only 378 pages long. It’s a quick, heart-pounding read. The story is not just about those flocking to our border. It is equally about us, about our response to the urgency of our neighbors’ need. And it’s immediate. The events depicted, although fictional, are not at all far-fetched. If you read it, you will not easily lapse into old assumptions about the anxious faces at our southern border. Don’t miss this important and powerful book.American DirtAmerican Dirt