In her beautiful, suspenseful and timely new novel “American Dirt,’’ Jeanine Cummins succeeds in taking migration — one of the central issues of our time — and bringing it down to human size. The story of one Mexican mother and her young son reminds us that migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border (and everywhere) are individuals driven by their own unique and desperate stories.
Cummins tells of Lydia, a bookstore owner in Acapulco, and her smart, sensitive 8-year-old, Luca. They have to flee their comfortable home when a drug cartel that has gradually taken over the city kills 16 members of their family at a backyard barbecue. The massacre begins in the novel’s first sentence, and the pace rarely lets up as the gang hunts for the two survivors.
Lydia’s husband, Sebastian, was a journalist, and the murders are retaliation for a profile he wrote about the cartel’s leader, known as La Lechuza (The Owl). There’s a personal twist too: The drug kingpin had been a customer in Lydia’s store, and they became friends before she realized who he was.
Escaping the cartel’s hitmen in Mexico is next to impossible: Its informants include police officers, hotel desk clerks and spies on the street. Without options, Lydia heads north toward the United States, “a planet where no one can reach them.’’ In shock over the loss of everything but Luca, she decides they can disguise themselves as migrants — realizing only gradually that it’s not a disguise.
“She feels as tatty as a scrap of lace, defined not so much by what she’s made of, but more by the shapes of what’s missing,” Cummins writes in typically lovely prose.
Like so many classic stories, “American Dirt” is about a journey, much of it on foot or riding precariously on top of freight trains. Along the way, we meet vibrant characters like the Honduran teenager Soledad, whose “calamitous beauty’’ is a constant danger to her, and Beto, the good-natured orphan who grew up in the garbage dumps of Tijuana.
We feel the sheer physical terror of jumping onto a moving train — with a child in tow — or walking at night in the cold, pitch-black desert.
The migrants contend with callousness as well as corruption. They are preyed upon by robbers and rapists, some wearing uniforms. Unlike many pop-culture narratives, this story keeps its eyes on the victims of organized crime, not its perpetrators. (Cummins explored the lasting effects of crime on victims in her 2004 non-fiction book “A Rip in Heaven,’’ about a deadly attack on her cousins.)
But along with cruelty and tragedy, Lydia and Luca encounter frequent and pivotal moments of kindness. The migrants are helped by people along their route, from priests and nuns to a doctor, a bank manager, a small-town woman tending her garden.
Even in this brutal, lawless world, Lydia reasons, “Newton’s third law can resonate … for every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption.’’
She herself is driven by love, by her need to save her son. Stories about family separation at the border fill her with terror, but going back, she is sure, means death for them both.
Cummins has drawn some criticism for taking on this subject without being Mexican herself. But she clearly has done her research, and her characters struck this reader as relatable and human, not stereotypes.
In her old life, Lydia recalls, she had been aware of migrant caravans from Central America passing through Mexico “in the way comfortable people living stable lives are peripherally aware of destitution.’’ She would hear about these desperate people on the radio, say, while she made dinner. Her sympathy “had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling’’ quickly displaced by the hum of daily living.
It’s the distant way so many of us connect with the global migration and refugee crisis. This important novel gives us a shake and makes us want to pay more attention.
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