American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Published by Flatiron Books ISBN 9781250209764
Hardcover, $26.99, 400 pages
Sometimes when I hear that a book has a lot of buzz around it, I am cautious about reading it, fearing it can't possibly live up to the hype. At last year's Book Expo America, one of the books that was getting a lot of buzz was American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins.
Set in Mexico, it tells the story of Lydia, a bookstore owner married to a journalist, and mother to their eight year-old son Luca. The book opens with five pages that hook and horrify the reader. Lydia's entire family is brutally murdered by a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca, hiding in the shower, are the only survivors.
Lydia knows that she must take Luca and run. Javier, the head of the cartel, will be after them as well now. She doesn't know whom to trust, and therefore cannot trust anyone. She cannot mourn her family or worry about how Luca is feeling- "She doesn't ask if he is okay because from now on that question will carry a weight of painful absurdity."
The story flashes backward so we see how Lydia came to be in this situation. Her family had a good life, she loved her husband, and they were happy. But if you end up in the crosshairs of the drug cartel, you are in danger.
Lydia decides the fastest, safest way to get to the United States border is to hop a train. They meet two teenage sisters, Soledad and Rebeca, who show them how to drop from an overpass onto the top of the train, where they find an entire community of migrants fleeing danger and poverty.
Their journey is long and dangerous. They must hide from the cartel and the police. Javier has tentacles that reach far into Mexico, and there is a bounty on Lydia's head.
There are many people who show the migrants kindness. At one shelter for the migrants, a nun offers Lydia advice and a place to stay for a few days, and warns Lydia to be careful who she talks to. At many points along the way, there are kind people who offer them refuge, food and kindness.
But there are also people who will take advantage. Lydia has a good sum of money with her and she is warned that at some point she will be robbed. Women are particularly vulnerable, and Lydia becomes protective of Soledad and Rebeca during an frightening encounter. The humanity of some people versus the inhumanity of others is a thought-provoking concept here.
Cummins writes a heart-pounding and heartbreaking story. She combines a propulsive thriller with a timely take on an issue that gives the reader a look into people who are forced to flee their homes to save their lives. Their resolve and resourcefulness is amazing.
American Dirt is simply one of the best novels I have read in a long time. Lydia and Luca are unforgettable characters, and you will furiously turn the pages to find out what happens to them. If you only read a few books this year, be sure one of them is American Dirt. I give it my highest recommendation.