Jeanine Cummins is the author of "American Dirt."

Jeanine Cummins is the author of "American Dirt." Credit: Joe Kennedy

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Books, 386 pp., $27.99)

At this point, reading Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt” in a vacuum is just about impossible, unless you don't have a social-media account, subscribe to any sort of news media or watch TV.

The novel, about a mother and her son on the run from the Mexican cartel, arrived on waves of hype, with praise from such authors as Ann Patchett, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King and Don Winslow (who compared it to “The Grapes of Wrath”). That hype quickly soured to outrage when Latinx writers criticized the novel for inaccuracies and stereotypes. Then Oprah Winfrey chose “American Dirt” for her book club, and soon a petition with more than 100 authors’ names was circulated asking her to rescind her endorsement. So far, she hasn’t. Meanwhile, Flatiron canceled Cummins’ book tour, citing threats to the author and booksellers, while some of the book’s critics reported threats, too.

Also under fire is Flatiron’s marketing department, which leaned in on that “Grapes of Wrath” comparison, which is not quite accurate. ”American Dirt” is more page-turner than literary masterpiece, a scorching, modern-day version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Instead of taking place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic landscape, the nightmare is happening right here, right now, and Cummins tells the story with propulsive energy.

“American Dirt” is Cummins’ fourth book, and yes, she has clumsily tried to make a statement in the ongoing discussion about immigration. That the statement fell flat doesn’t negate its potential to influence readers who haven’t given much thought to the border or what happens there.

The story opens with the murder of 16 people at a quinceañera in Acapulco. Two survivors hide in a bathroom: Lydia, a bookseller, and her 8-year-old son Luca. Outside are the bodies of Lydia’s family, including her journalist husband, whose work has prompted this butchery. The killers grab meat off the grill, joking that they shouldn’t let good barbecue go to waste.

Surviving is a temporary reprieve, Lydia knows. She and Luca must flee their comfortable middle-class home, evading cartel assassins and other predators to cross into the United States. The action is almost unbearably suspenseful, and Cummins never delves into politics. She doesn’t rail against the inequities of class and economics or launch lengthy attacks on corruption or border policies. She allows the story and its characters to carry the narrative

Lydia and Luca meet other migrants along their journey, including teenage sisters fleeing rape and violence in Honduras and a threatening young man who says he’s fleeing the cartel (but might not be). They face impossible danger at roadblocks and boarding La Bestia, the train that sweeps migrants across Mexico. “The possible manners of death available on La Bestia are all gruesome,” Cummins writes. She then adds: “And finally, there’s the ubiquity of ordinary human violence: you can die by beating or stabbing or shooting. Robbery is a foregone conclusion.”

Encounters with la migra on both sides of the border are horrific: “They understand the best-case scenario now is to be captured by a man who obeys the dictate of his uniform, a man who will detain them and process them, and then erase their entire journey, and send them back to wherever they started.” The other possibilities are kidnapping, torture, extortion, rape, sexual slavery and death.

But mitigating such hopelessness is Cummins’ awareness of compassion, which may be the most compelling detail in the book. Lydia and Luca meet many brave souls on their journey: A man with a machete who escorts migrants through town. Good Samaritans who provide food, shelter and prayers. Migrants already riding La Bestia who pull others aboard to safety.

That vein of kindness runs through “American Dirt” and reminds us we can do better, too.  “For every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption,” Cummins writes. There are reasons to read this book, and this is one of them. Is “American Dirt” “trauma porn” as its critics say? Or is it a roller-coaster ride subjected to scrutiny most thrillers don’t face? There’s only one way to find out.

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