Jeanine Cummins’ AMERICAN DIRT
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
It is the time of year when I start reading books that are coming out next year. This novel has sat in my pile for quite awhile as there have been too many good 2019 books to read without skipping ahead to 2020 but as the end of the year draws close it was time time to start. Don Winslow has been raving about his book for awhile and the buzz around the book industry has been getting louder and louder as advanced copies make their way out into the world. Now it is my turn to add to the chorus of praise for this powerful and unforgettable novel.
Set in Mexico the story follows bookshop owner Lydia and her eight year-old son Luca. After a savage act of violence in the cartel ravaged city of Acapulco, Lydia and her son must flee for their lives. The opening chapter is one of the most visceral and intense passages I have ever read and sets the course for the novel that never drops from that level of intensity again.
As Lydia and Luca make their way north, in hopes of getting to the US border and crossing into El Norte, we slowly learn what has happened that led up to the tragic and violent events that have forced this horrific journey upon her and her son. As we follow their journey we meet other migrants who are also trying to escape north. Each person they meet is as desperate, fearful and hopeful as Lydia and Luca but for a myriad of different reasons. Their reasons for fleeing and their experiences along their journeys have also changed them as people which makes working out who is a friend or foe almost impossible.
The route Lydia and Luca must take is also full of many other dangers. From warring cartels to corrupt and sadistic migration officers, from punishing deserts to an infamous freight train known as La Bestia which migrants board while it is still moving and then must ride on top of, clinging to the roof for survival. All the while Lydia must hope there is a better life in the north, without knowing what dangers lie across the border, which they hope will be their salvation.
This is an amazing novel that is both an epic thriller, a heartbreaking tale of survival and a tragic portrait of the plight of millions of people who are regularly ignored and denigrated without any knowledge of what they are fleeing and the new lives they are hoping to escape to. Combining the ferocity of The Power of the Dog with the humanity of The Kite Runner this is the first must read of 2020.