American Dirt

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The story begins by introducing us to 8 1/2 year old Luca and his mom Lydia in Acapulco, moments before their entire family is killed in the backyard of Lydia's mother's house at a quinceañera celebration for Lydia's niece. Lydia has owned a book store for ten years. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist who has covered the cartels. It is believed that the sicarios are behind the gunning down of the 16 members of Lydia's family.

The story moves fast but the action is slowed by over-analysis of every move with metaphors and memories that seem incongruous. For example, in the moment a character is preparing to jump on a train they can mentally reflect on the moment and put a metaphor to it and remember a classmate who was a daredevil and then another character "realizes how quickly this has to happen, that they have no time to weigh their options, no time to consider best practices." (ePg. 139) - above all self-doubt or worry or physical distress. It is usually a pleasant writing style, despite its extensions and musings, but sometimes it seems over-done.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 2

Religion: 4

Gruesome: 3

Suspense: 4

Morality: 4

Traditional: 4

Sex - Ch. 16: the "girlfriend" of a gang leader "endures him" and is given to another gang member for an hour for pay but she decides to fight back when the leader also wants her little sister. A couple of rapes happen off the pages.

Religion - Lydia says grief gives her a minor crisis of faith. When Lydia goes to Victory Tabernacle Pentecostal Church to find Sebastian's college roommate, she blesses herself without water (it wasn't available) but admits it is not for veneration but to blend in. Lydia prays at the road block. The first group of migrants was mostly Catholic and invoked the name of Jesus Christ and the saints. Ch. 12: in absence of names the nun used Mary and Joseph. Lydia feels the room has the "sanctity of a confessional" (ePg. 116, loc. 2096). Many priests helped the migrants along the way. We read a nun's prayer. Ch. 15: "The men bless themselves when they go by a steeple or a roadside gave. They pray." (ePg. 148, loc. 2672) Ch. 20: Lydia suggests they say a rosary for the restoration of the health of Soledad & Rebecca's father and she knows it will be calming for her. She prays for a man who tried to get on a train and for Luca to not be scarred by all he'd seen. In Ch. 22 some migrants pray in the warehouse. In Ch. 24 Luca blesses himself because, "It's an eighth holy sacrament for migrants - repeating the names of your beloved dead." (ePg. 252, loc. 4537) In Ch. 32 Lydia prays for feet, steps, and catching up (to the group). She also thinks about being lost in the desert for 40 years or 40,000 years and thinks her Catholic vision of hell was wrong - it's not fire, it's the desert.

Gruesome - Ch. 1: a 16 person massacre at a family gathering. Ch. 13: severed heads, accounts of murder including of children. Migrants get maimed getting on or off the train. Sicarios and police molest and rape women. Ch. 33: one character gets severely injured in a flood.

Suspense - suspense is rampant throughout the book (e.g., will they be discovered in the shower, will they get out of the hotel in time, can they pass the check point to get out of the city) There is suspense every time they get on a train - first the backpacks with all their money and belongings, then Luca - will Lydia make it too? Ch. 17 when they discover their proximity to Lorenzo. I felt like the blister episode in Ch. 32 was rather suspenseful.

Morality - there is an underlying thread in this novel that cartels control towns and take money from business owners and others for promises of protection. There are instances of people who are sympathetic to the migrants and help them. There are others who profit from the situation. Many instances of migrants making large sacrifices for other migrants.

Traditional - there are no instances of homosexuality. One man cheats on his wife and doesn't keep it a secret.

*Side note, in Ch. 4 Lydia mentions some of her favorite books, including "Heart, You Bully, You Punk" and "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty". They sound made up to me but they are real books. The "gardeners" cartel is led by "La Lechuza" which when I heard it on audio I heard as "lechusa" which I assumed meant the lettuce (because you find lettuce in a garden - actually lettuce in Spanish is lechuga) but actually means the owl. It is explained rather late in the book (Ch. 28).

Many find the book very heavy and feel like they have to take breaks while reading. I didn't feel the same way but I listened to it entirely on audio so maybe that had something to do with it. There was a moment of levity when they joke about President Trump calling the cartel men "bad hombres" but he mispronounced it as "hambres" so instead of saying "bad men" he said "bad hunger". I also found irony in Chapter 25 when Lydia feels like she half-knows Beto because she's read books about border kids (just like we read this book about immigrants). The book is real, "By the Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the Mexican Border" by Luis Urrea. The one thing I did get tired of is hearing how beautiful Soledad was. As many times as it was said - she should've been a supermodel. I understand that females are often raped along the way. I can imagine that a rapist might go after the pretty girls more. Her beauty may even be why Soledad was chosen by her "boyfriend" in her home town, which ultimately led them to flee. But of the three rapes that happen on the way, two of them are against a different female (not Soledad).

This book was named as an Oprah's Book Club selection and then there was some backlash because Cummins is not a migrant - as if an author can't do research and write about something besides their personal experience. I'm no fact-checker but it seems the author's research was thorough. The reference to Arivaca, Arizona is something I'd never heard of but does seem to have truth (well, I read it online so it must be true, right?) It is ridiculous to think that an author can't write about a different culture. What's next - can a male author not write any female characters? Must every new story be written in present day because we can't write about time periods in which we have no experience? The book is billed as a novel, not a memoir. Novels are meant for entertainment - and entertain it does! Towards the end, not that I wanted it to, but it seemed like it was going to end several times. I was glad to get a little more and a little more. If it was a movie I would have checked my watch to see how much longer this could possibly go on.

As entertaining as the book was, the Epilogue is where the biggest treasure is. I have worked with English as a Second Language (ESL) students in high schools in south Texas. Some of my students walked here from Honduras or El Salvador. I did not doubt that they had come here seeking a better life. But I never stopped to think about the atrocities they encountered along the way. And furthermore, I never thought, as I was bothering them about why they didn't do their homework, about how ridiculous it must seem to them to worry about all the trivial things high school girls worry about when they were worried about their people left behind in the other countries and trying to find peace with whatever may have happened to them on the way here.

Discussion Questions

Lydia considers it might be kinder to have Luca with her when she opens the car in case of a bomb. Would it? (Ch. 3)

They couldn't take their own car but why not someone else's for a faster get-away? Do you think the better strategy was to blend in with the tourists or to isolate? Why didn't she cut or dye her hair?

Luca enjoys his dad's smell on the Yankees cap but worries he might use it all up. What intangibles have you tried to preserve? (Ch. 3)

"Books are cheaper than airplane tickets" said Lydia's book store sign in Ch. 4. Javier retorted that books are more dangerous. Why? Do you agree?

What did you think Javier meant when he wrote "You won't suffer long" in the note he put in "Love in the Time of Cholera"?

Were you surprised to read the U.S. had funded most of the fence to keep migrants from jumping on the train? (Ch. 10)

Were you surprised by the suicide in Ch. 18? Did that change how you saw La Lechuza's motives for the quinceañera massacre?

Lydia frequently tells herself not to think when she is overwhelmed with fear. What do you do?

Lydia never knew who to trust. Would you have trusted the sisters (Soledad and Rebecca)? Lorenzo? Beto? the doctor? Marisol?

Do you agree with Newton's third law, "For every wickedness there is an equal and opposite possibility for redemption." ? (Pg. 337, loc. 6071)

El Chacal was a nickname from childhood that at first he didn't like but it morphed and he grew into it. Did you have any nicknames in childhood? Did they stick with you? Did you like El Chacal? Did your impression of him change after reading his backstory in Ch. 32? Do you believe he will go back to the spot he pinned on his phone map?

Have you ever had an asthma scare or cared for someone with asthma?

Did you believe La Lechuza didn't want Lydia to die? What did he want?

Theme Ideas

Serve grilled drumsticks and carne asada with ice cold sodas like at the quinceañera in Ch. 1.

Serve conchas like Javier brought to the book store in Chapter 4. And French chocolates like he gave Lydia for her birthday. Decorate with Russian nesting dolls like Javier gave Lydia in Ch. 8.

Serve posole like when Sebastian taught Luca to snap in Ch. 9.

Serve tampiqueña like when Luca lost his first tooth in Ch. 14.

Serve water from a canteen.


  • Banda MS (there was a reference to them singing a song about how happy they are to be in love)