“For all of her love of words, at times they’re entirely insufficient.”
Why? Why do I tend to frequently pick up books that I do not feel qualified to review?
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a 2020 release that has proven to be incredibly controversial. Praised by the likes of Oprah, Stephen King, and John Grisham, and chosen as a favourite here in Canada by Indigo’s founder and CEO Heather Reisman, American Dirt has taken the world by storm as a depiction of the Mexican migrant experience. However, at the same time, it has been vehemently criticized by authors who show how Cummins’s portrayal of the Mexican migrant experience is racist and inauthentic. I won’t go into too much detail about this myself, as I am not an authority on this situation and thus cannot speak properly about it, but I would like to link below three negative reviews of American Dirt that I read, which greatly informed my understanding of the controversy surrounding the novel. These reviews are excellent and well worth reading before delving into American Dirt, in my opinion.
– David Bowles’s Review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3083591534
– Roxane Gay’s Review: https://gay.medium.com/white-fever-dreams-a5623c5ada0e
My main source of internal conflict after reading American Dirt comes from the fact that I actually very much liked the book. And, I have to be honest, I really didn’t want to. I do not believe, personally, that Jeanine Cummins should have written this book, based on my reading of the reviews above, and I wish that another author, of the target culture, had written it instead. Because, despite everything I had read, I was emotionally overwhelmed by the story of Lydia and her young son, Luca. As a new mother to a baby boy, I was overcome at times by the urge to cry over what Lydia and Luca were going through and by the description of their bond. I found Cummins’s writing style to be extremely evocative and I had a very visceral reaction to every scene she described. Then, when other migrant characters like Soledad and Rebeca were introduced, I felt myself becoming instantly attached to them and feeling their fear, grief and frustration so acutely that I was unable to put the book down. I looked forward to reading it very much, even though I wanted to hate it, and I found myself longing to be able to give it 5 stars and to recommend it to all my friends and family.
But, alas, I feel I cannot do that and I am almost angry with Cummins for ruining this reading experience for me. American Dirt could’ve achieved status akin to Middlesex or Elie Wiesel’s Night for me, except that it was written by the wrong author. It could’ve been one of the most profound reading endeavours of my literary life, except that I found myself doubting and questioning everything Cummins said through her characters because the authenticity of the entire work was called into question. I found myself frustrated with Oprah and Reisman for shouting about a book that ultimately cannot be trusted from the rooftops. I was so enveloped and enraptured by the whole story, and yet so deeply disappointed by it at the same time.
So I ask, Why? Why was this book published, marketed and celebrated in this way? Why is a book that is almost designed to mislead its readers being placed at the front of every bookstore I have walked into in recent days? I feel lucky that I am the type of reader who feels inclined to do research, particularly when there is controversy surrounding a novel, but I know that there are so many readers out there who would not feel compelled to do this and who will take Cummins’s words at face value and feel like they are more sympathetic and enlightened as a result. And, ultimately, I don’t think any reader can say that American Dirt is a truly informative or educational text in the way that it could have been if it was written by someone else. Unfortunately, its poignancy and impact is entirely diluted now, and I find it incredibly sad that a story that could’ve had such clout and impact will now be mired by this controversy.
For the first time since joining Goodreads myself, I don’t feel that I want to give this book a rating. If I were to rate it based on how it touched me as a work of fiction, I would be forced to give it a high score…but, as I have said, I don’t feel comfortable doing that because of the circumstances, and I will never be able to fully reconcile my mixed feelings about this particular novel.
Girl with a Green Heart