Jeanine Cummins’ new novel about migration from Mexico will get you through the winter nights.
One of last year’s most memorable local news stories ran in the Maine Sunday Telegram in June. It had an international angle and the headline “Asylum seekers defy death for a better life in Portland.” Telegram reporter Rob Wolfe had spent hours in the Expo in Portland interviewing asylum seekers about their journey to get to Maine from Central Africa.
Many of them had taken flights to Ecuador, gone on through Columbia and Panama and into Central America. They walked over a place they called “The Mountain of Death,” a grueling journey through the jungle, with both natural and human dangers lying in wait along the way. Most were put on a bus at the Mexican border and then held at the Texas border. It was a powerful narrative that illuminated just how much those asylum seekers were willing to endure to get to safety and to a place like Maine.
Wolfe’s excellent story came back to me as I was reading Jeanine Cummin’s new novel American Dirt, which follows a mother, Lydia Delgado, and her son, Luca, 8, on a journey from Acapulco toward “El Norte,” and what they hope will be safety in the United States. This isn’t a spoiler, because all of this happens in the first, short chapter, but Lydia’s family is slaughtered while she and Luca huddle in the bathroom, listening to the gunshots, hiding behind a partial wall of tile while her mother, husband Sebastián, cousins and siblings die. The only reason mother and son survive is because of Luca’s neediness; his cousin walked in on him in the bathroom at a recent family gathering. Lydia is there to guard the door. Her last words to her mother as they left the backyard party were argumentative because her mother thought she was overindulging Luca.
While she’s guarding the door, she ends up guarding his life. Since Sebastián is a journalist, he’s not a surprising target. In 2019 more than a dozen journalists were killed in Mexico, including three in one day, presumably because of their reporting on corruption and the narcos. Sebastián had just published a profile of the kingpin of the (fictional) Los Jardineros cartel.
The book takes off as the mother and son flee Acapulco. The ultimate vacation escape a Mainer might have craved in the 1980s is now a murder capital, overrun by drug cartels (“narcos”).
As the story unfolds, we learn more about the head of Los Jardineros, Javier, and his surprising connection to Lydia and the bookshop she ran in Acapulco. She understands she has to leave not just her hometown but Mexico itself. Los Jardineros has a long reach, all the way to the border. She has some money, but no passport or proof that Luca is her child. So instead of getting on a plane to exit the country, she has to go the way of migrants passing through Mexico, people like the ones that come through Central America on their way to the American border. This includes riding the roof of a transport train that everyone calls La Bestia (“The Beast”). “All the way from Chiapas to Chihuahua, they cling to the tops of the cars. The train has earned the name La Bestia because that journey is a mission of terror in every way imaginable. Violence and kidnapping are endemic along the tracks, and apart from the criminal dangers, migrants are also maimed or killed every day when they fall from the tops of the trains. Only the poorest and most destitute of people attempt to travel this way.”
As this middle-class, grieving, incredibly determined woman considers her options, it seems insane to make a child climb onto—or drop onto—the roof of a moving train. As we travel alongside Lydia, going into both her head and to Luca’s, we understand the desperation that would cause someone to make that decision. Luca is seriously precocious, a geography whiz who can stand up and deliver a soliloquy about distances and statistics for places he’s never been. Like, what’s the third largest city in America?
“Well that’s easy, it’s Chicago,” Luca says to Rebeca, one of the teenaged sisters from Central America who they meet and begin to travel with. Rebeca is beautiful, but her sister Soledad is uncannily so, emitting a glow that means they are particularly vulnerable targets on the migrant trail. Luca goes on: “Once you get down to around the fifth and sixth largest it’s a lot trickier because those populations are changing by a significant percentage year by year, but—wait, why?” He doesn’t understand that Rebeca has been trying to distract him from a particular dangerous situation.
Luca is so sweet and smart that you start to worry that in the Hollywood version of this story, which was optioned before publication, that he’ll be one of those movie kids you can’t believe is real. He mostly works on the page though.
I don’t throw around the word “riveting” but this book is seriously riveting. It held me rapt for hours early in January, hours in which I kept telling myself, just one more chapter and then I’ll get up and take the Christmas tree down. Eventually I gave up, gave the tree another day in the living room, and allowed myself the pleasure of reading into the night to finish. I should have known from the Stephen King and John Grisham blurbs that it would be a page turner, but it exceeded my expectations because it also helped me understand a key part of the world better.
When I closed it I was overwhelmed by the power of fiction to do what journalism can do only in pieces and parts. Cummins began researching the book in 2013, before immigration became as hot button an issue as it is right now. Her author’s note begins with a horrifying statistic, that a migrant died every 21 hours along the U.S. and Mexican border. Reading it, there is a constant fear that Lydia, Luca, Rebeca or Soledad, character we come to love, will be one of those statistics. Cummins also delivers an apology of sorts. She’s of Puerto Rican descent rather than Mexican, and is second generation American. She married someone who came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.
Still, she writes in that note that she debated whether or not she was capable of telling this story. “I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began.” I’m glad she did. Make this your deep winter read, it will enrich you while making the long, cold hours fly by.