American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins


I hadn’t heard of this book until I bumped into Newsnigtht’s Kirsty Wark on the stairs at work and we had our usual whirlwind catch up of books we’d both read. “American Dirt”, she said, “that’s the one you absolutely have to read. It’s extraordinary.” It’s not even out yet. It won’t be published until the middle of January but she was so insistent that I should read it that I contacted the publishers and got hold of a proof copy. She was right. It’s one of the most compelling books I have read in a long time, a page turner that had me in tears a number of times (usually on public transport…). It’s the story of a woman called Lydia who lives with her husband and son in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookshop, he is a journalist. But the beachside city of Acapulco is now a dangerous place where drugs cartels fight it out. It’s become known as the murder capital of Mexico. The opening chapter of American Dirt is one of the most chilling I have read. It’s brilliantly written. Lydia and her 8 year old son are cowering in a shower room as gunfire erupts outside. They are forced to flee their home and so begins a treacherous journey along the well beaten migrant path to ‘El Norte’ as they go on the run and try to reach the safety of the United States. We have all seen the footage of the migrants trying to get into the US along the Mexican border. We frequently broadcast reports on the news focussing on the plight of migrants everywhere. But what Jeanine Cummins has done in her book is humanise and personalise the wave of misery and desperation that we watch from the comfort of our own homes. I found some of the details about Acapulco and the drugs gangs and about the risks migrants take on freight trains heading north so horrifying that I kept googling to see how accurate it all was. And it really is accurate because as Cummins explains in great detail at the end of her novel, she spent four years researching it all meticulously. American Dirt is a book I couldn’t put down but also one I didn’t want to finish. It is tense and unnerving from start to finish but it is also a book about a mother’s determination to do whatever it takes to protect her son, about humanity and hope and the lengths people will go to and the risks they’ll take to find safety and freedom. It’s a brilliant book that I suspect will be much talked about in 2020 when it’s published. 

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