BOOK ENDS REVIEW: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt (Flatiron Books, 2020, 387 pages, hardcover, $16.75) by Jeanine Cummins is the story of a middle-class Mexican woman, Lydia, and her 8-year-old son, Luca, whose lives are torn apart during a quinceañera party. Lydia’s husband, Sebastian, a newspaper reporter, had angered a cartel kingpin with an exposé story he wrote. 

The novel opens with the murder of 16 members of Lydia’s family, including her husband, forcing Lydia and Luca to run for their lives. Lydia manages to escape Acapulco using cash and the bus system, but when she tries to board a plane and can’t produce a birth certificate for her son, Lydia and Luca join a slew of undocumented immigrants hitchhiking on top of La Bestia (the train) to get to the United States (El Norte). 

What makes this novel even more compelling is that Lydia had developed a strong friendship with the drug kingpin before she understood Javier’s role in extortion and killing sprees. 

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The novel takes readers on a journey as the pair travels across Mexico. Readers experience knuckle-whitening jumps onto railcars from bridges and treks across a heat-stroke-inducing desert prone to unexpected rain and flash floods. As Lydia races to the border, she lives in constant fear that Javier’s army of gang members will hunt her, and her son, down to finish the job of executing Sebastian’s entire family. When a young man, Lorenzo, who wears the characteristic tattoo of a sickle dripping blood which signifies he is part of Javier’s gang, joins Lydia’s train car, she worries that Javier has ordered him to follow her even though Lorenzo assures them he is trying to escape from Javier’s gang just like she is. 

Lydia’s strength is admirable as she tackles hurdle after hurdle. Her son’s charm is a necessary reprieve to offset the violent scenes in the novel. Luca’s adeptness at geography even helps save him and his mother from an uncertain fate. 

Other characters include Rebeca and Soledad, two sisters from Honduras, and Beto, an asthmatic boy who is trying to escape the only life he’s known living on a garbage dump. The gripping plot will keep readers turning the pages to find out if Lydia and Luca will escape Javier’s men. 

American Dirt is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of January 2020, and an Oprah’s Book Club Pick. 

While lauded by many celebrities including Stephen King, the book has created controversy. For the most part, the outcry centers on the lack of diversity in the publishing industry and the opinion that the book is meant for white audiences. 

Readers who want a more authentic recounting of an immigrant’s experience might prefer to read Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora. However, I wouldn’t avoid American Dirt. The novel is gripping as it reveals the plight of migrants and the myriad of reasons they are willing to risk everything to cross the border and face the hardships of traveling illegally into the United States. 

Jeanine Cummins’ other books include the bestselling memoir, A Rip in Heaven, The Outside Boy, and The Crooked Branch. She lives in New York with her husband and two children. Setting the emotionally-charged issue of immigration and controversy of Cummin’s racial and cultural background aside, this is a very well-written novel filled with brutal realities, endearing love of family, kindness of strangers, and most of all, hope. 

You can buy the book on Amazon HERE. []

Jill Hedgecock is the Program Coordinator, Mount Diablo Branch of the California Writers Club, and also the author of From Shadow’s Perspective. Find her at