A book like American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins exemplifies the wisdom of the nine-year-old me. For in telling the riveting story of people who must leave their beloved homes to save their lives, Cummins gives faces to those we are told to fear, and when their stories move us we connect to the 'other' and experience our common humanity.
The cover blurb calls this novel "The Grapes of Wrath for our time." Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and was an instant best-seller in spite of being labeled "socialist propaganda." The Depression and Dust Bowl had driven 5000,000 people to leave their homes and travel across America, hoping to find work--to just survive. Steinbeck showed America who these migrants were, how they were treated, how they suffered on their journey.
Today's migrants also flee for their lives, not because of environmental degradation has destroyed their livelihood, but because of violence and lawlessness and human trafficking. They just want the freedom to survive.
American Dirt begins with an explosive chapter of horror and violence, with Lydia and her eight-year-old son in Lucas hiding, listening to the sound of sixteen family members being murdered. The choices made by Lydia and her journalist husband Sebastian brought them to this moment. Lydia was drawn to befriend Javier, a patron in her bookstore, unaware he was the head of a deadly cartel. And Sebastian wrote an expose' on Javier for his newspaper.
As Lydia and Lucas flee and make their way from Acapulco north they accumulate a rag-tag family, Soledad and Rebeca, sisters from the idyllic cloud forest now controlled by a cartel, and Beto, a world-wise child from the garbage dumps. Other travelers exemplify the diversity of migrants--a teen trying to escape the cartel, men who go north for work, a grad student brought to America as a child, a middle-class mother in America legally who is arrested during her routine check-in.
These people encounter all the terrors of the migrant journey, learning to scramble onto moving trains, hunger and thirst and weariness, continual fear, capture and ransom, rape, abuse--and the charity of helpers.
I was literally brought to tears when a man escorts Lydia, Lucas, and the sisters through town, protecting them with his size and machete. When asked why he did this for migrants he replied, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink," with Lydia finishing, "A stranger and you welcomed me."
I spent my entire adult life as the wife of a clergyman. I know both scripture and what is required of us and the many ways we justify our actions--or inactions-- our sins of commission and omission. The ways we twist things, grab onto worldly values to sidestep doing what is right.
I also have seen how true faith is risk and perilous and how false faith separates, judges, and protects one's self-interest.
History teaches that silence is consent, inaction is approval. Something must stir the public's heart. Nothing does that like a good story.
The Grapes of Wrath caught Eleanor Roosevelt's attention and she called for the government to look into migrant camp conditions. As Susan Shillinglaw notes, “Empathy is the signature of the book—an empathetic response to human suffering."
And that is what American Dirt accomplishes.
I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
by Jeanine Cummins
Pub Date 21 Jan 2020
PRICE $27.99 (USD)