As I was reading Jeanine Cummins America Dirt one thought kept permeating my mind. This is important. American Dirt is a story about family, a story about trauma, and a story about what it takes for migrants to reach the United States. It is a tale of the real people making the journey. It strips away all the propaganda and political bluster and tells a relatable easy to empathize with story. It is the story of Lydia Quixano Pérez, her son Luca, and what happens after the cartel guns down her journalist husband and 15 other members of her family.
It is a novel we have seen before in As I Lay Dying and The Grapes of Wrath. It is a story that takes major political issues, completely ignores them, and tells a human story that highlights the true issues more than any news article or political talking points segment could. It tells us about La Bestia, El tren de la muerte, the train of death. It takes us through the characters journey to first avoid the realities of becoming a migrant. The struggle of an upper middle class married small business owner finding herself suddenly widowed and on the run from some o the deadliest and ruthless criminals the world has ever seen.
At first Lydia tries to avoid the train, but all other paths either reveal her to her pursuers or are closed off due to the circumstances of her escape. Eventually she must face the train and other realities of migrating to the United States. Along the way their party grows. A fellowship is formed, and American Dirt becomes an adventure novel, but the dangers they face aren’t orcs or Nazgul. They are cartels, gangs, corrupt police, vigilantes, and more. They ride the train north facing trauma and tragedy. Find themselves in some but not all the perils migration can bring.
This story is important. It is important because el norte is treated like a beacon of hope, a land of opportunity, a place where Lydia will be safe from the murderous cartel. American Dirt highlights the privilege we have as American residents. The average American upper middle class small business owner isn’t worrying about the cartel gunning down their family at a birthday party. They aren’t then having to jump onto the roof of a freight train and ride it more than a thousand miles to the northern border only to have to walk in the scorching heat and freezing cold of the Sonora Desert.
American Dirt is not a political novel. It never once makes an overt political statement. It is a novel about family, trauma, adventure, and triumph, but at the same time it highlights the very battle America faces for her soul. It shows us the humanity of the people migrating to our border. The people our politicians call rapists, criminals, and bad hombres. The people we separate from their families and lock in cages when they beg us to help. American Dirt shows us the face of the migrants, and how if we had been born a thousand or so miles to the south we could be them.
American Dirt also shows hope. It shows us America can still be good. We can once again value the words in the New York harbor. We can once again be a beacon of hope and build the city on the hill. Be the guiding light for goodness around the world. All we need to do is open our arms, open our hearts, to those in need. Give those that seek asylum asylum, provide aid and protection to those seeking safety in our country, and welcome them into our communities when they arrive. American Dirt is important, and it should be read before heading to the polls this November to cast a vote in an election that is for the very soul of our nation.