A mother takes her eight-year-old son on a journey through Mexico to the US border in this heart-stopping novel
Some news stories are so brutal and bewildering that it is difficult to fully understand them. The Mexican drug cartels, which were blamed for the deaths of 31,000 people last year, provide one such story. Another is the American migrant crisis. In October alone, 17,000 Mexicans were caught trying to smuggle themselves across the US border.
Fiction can help to make sense of these stories. In American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins combines both catastrophes. A Mexican mother, Lydia, is trying to spirit her eight-year-old son, Luca, to safety in the US after a cartel shoots dead 16 of their relatives at a family barbecue in Acapulco.
Luca’s father, Sebastian, an investigative journalist who had recently profiled the cartel kingpin, is grilling Luca’s favourite chicken drumsticks when the “modern bogeymen of urban Mexico” descend. Lydia, a bookshop owner, bundles her son behind a small wall in the corner of her mother’s bathroom to escape the massacre, which Cummins describes in the opening two pages.
From here, the pace somehow quickens, as Lydia and Luca head north on their desperate quest to escape Los Jardineros, which brands its members with a tattoo of a sickle dripping blood for every cartel-ordered death. With no birth certificate for Luca, flying is not an option, neither is travelling by coach, since the cartels control Mexico’s roads. The pair are forced instead to risk death by riding on top of “La Bestia”, the freight trains that rumble towards the border with hundreds of desperate passengers.
Migrants are often defined in news reports by the journey they are on. But Cummins ensures Lydia is a multi-layered human being. Even the cartel’s head, Javier Crespo, is a person with dreams and feelings. He and Lydia bond over a shared love of literature after he wanders into her bookshop. “They talked about literature and poetry and economics and politics and the music they both adored,” writes Cummins, “and he stayed for nearly two hours, until she began to worry that he’d be missed somewhere, but he waved his hand dismissively. ‘There is nothing out there more important than this.’”
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Like Lydia, Javier is a parent, to a cherished 16-year-old daughter, Marta. And like Lydia, he wants to keep his child safe. The levelling power of familial love helps to keep the plot accessible, even if events remain beyond our worst nightmares.
Cummins does not shy away from horror, describing the fate of those thrown from La Bestia or caught by la migra, the Mexican immigration police. One man leaps after his brother, who is knocked off the train’s roof by a tunnel. “His shadow makes the shape of grief as he hurtles towards the Earth,” writes Cummins.
There is brutality and despair, but also hope. The kindness of random strangers, the sharing of food and advice – all these things help the miles to dissolve. Even as Lydia and Luca become accustomed to their new life, they strive to remember how abnormal it is. “Don’t forget to be afraid,” Lydia tells one woman, as they scramble aboard yet another freight train.
This is a novel to power through. I felt that the faster I read the chapters, the better the chance of Lydia and Luca making it to safety. Along with Jenny Offill and Hope Jahren, Cummins is among a wave of writers hoping their words will spark social change. Here, she turns migrants magnificently back into people.