Jeanine Cummins could not have asked for greater accolades for her new novel, “American Dirt,” about a mother fleeing with her child in Mexico after a drug cartel has killed her journalist husband and fifteen others in a not untypical massacre. “Marvelous,” “masterful,” “dazzling,””riveting,” “a Grapes of Wrath for our times,” referring to John Steinbeck’s famed novel of American migrants heading west in the Great Depression.
Then reviews took an abrupt turn. There were complaints that the author, a white American, doesn’t really understand Mexico. She deals in “stereotypes” and writes “trauma porn” that “reeks of opportunism”. As a sign of her cultural insensitivity, she mislabels a familiar Mexican doughnut. Such was the outpouring of rebuke that a couple of reviewers changed their minds and on second thought decided the novel is not so good after all.
Seldom is there such dramatically divided opinion about a book, apparently heart felt. And while literary merit can always be argued, there seems to be something more involved. In various attacks on the novel there’ s hardly any mention of its major theme: namely, the uncontrollable drug cartel violence that has overtaken Mexico and led to the massive influx of people and drugs to the U.S.. The tension from that is reflected on every page of the novel as heroine Lydia and son Luca confront one obstacle after another, see the best and worst in Mexico, in their arduous journey to safety in the north.
This message seems to be missed, though not among certain discerning readers. The drug cartels with almost all their business in the U.S. don’t brook interference of any kind. In Mexico, they kill offending journalists – a dozen last year. In the U.S they are more restrained – so far. But there’s nothing to stop them from whipping up attacks on “American Dirt” in an effort to kill it with words, not bullets. That serves as a background to some of the less persuasive criticism. With many billions of dollars at their disposal they are known to have influence. Not surprisingly, threats have led to the cancellation of a book tour.
Critics have one point that is well taken – the neglect in the U.S. of Mexican authors. One example is Oscar Martinez, a journalist whose book “The Beast” describes his harrowing ride on the top of a train with refugees desperately trying to reach the U.S.. That’s duplicated by Cummins in her riveting – yes, that’s the word – account of the same tragic ride. She now faces the danger of bringing to light in her fiction the facts we are not supposed to know or be concerned about. Given her wider audience she is more of a threat than others, thus establishing her as a crucial writer of our times.