When I first approached American Dirt, I assumed it was a story I’ve read and viewed in movies, one of the brutal hardships of those who escape Central America and Mexico and head to el norte. It is that, but it takes time to build into that tale.
Lydia and her son Luca are the only survivors of a horrific event during the opening pages and a drug lord is looking for them. But there is a backstory here the author expertly builds. Lydia runs a bookstore. She loves books and so does one of her favorite customers. However, there is a connection to that favorite customer that puts her husband in jeopardy. The author lays the links piece by piece, building the suspense. The story arc builds a steep incline.
Then Lydia runs for her life and takes little Luca with her. She must escape to el norte, the United States. That is when the novel turns to the story I had been expecting, the miserable travel north. Along the way, there is a mix of kindness and cruelty. Townships that encourage migrants to sleep in their park, churches that offer free meals, but also kidnappers and robbers.
The first third of the book builds intrigue, but the story arc flattens for most of the rest of the book, its only failing. The writing is great, if not sometimes lengthy. Sometimes a feeling takes two pages to describe, but they are fine pages.
The world of the Mexicans, the migrants from Central America, their language and their travails seem so authentic, I thought the author had to be Mexican. She is not. Jeanine Cummins is a New York based author but, as her endnotes depict, one who did much research. There is no question she is a gifted writer.