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Winfrey chooses the novel 'American Dirt' for her book club

"American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins, has

"American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins, has been named the latest selection in Oprah Winfrey's book club. (Flatiron Books via AP) Credit: Flatiron Books via AP

Jeanine Cummins' “American Dirt,” one of the year's most anticipated and debated novels, is Oprah Winfrey's new pick for her book club.

“American Dirt,” published Tuesday, tells of a bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who loses much of her family to a murderous drug cartel and flees north on a terrifying journey with her 8-year-old son. The novel was acquired by Flatiron Books in 2018 in a reported seven-figure deal and has been talked about in the publishing world ever since. It has appeared on numerous lists of books to look for in 2020, has reached the top 20 on ahead of its release, and has been praised by everyone from John Grisham and Stephen King to Erika Sanchez and Sandra Cisneros.

Winfrey, interviewed Friday by telephone, told The Associated Press that one blurb that stood out was novelist Don Winslow's comparing “American Dirt” to John Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“And I remember thinking, ‘Yeah right, you better know what you're talking about because I have a first edition of ‘Grapes of Wrath,' and it sits on a pedestal in my living room,' " Winfrey said. “Now I wouldn’t say this is ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ but I would say that ... I have been a news reporter, watched the news, seen the stories every day, seen the children at the border and my heart is wrenched by that. And nothing has done more [than ‘American Dirt'] to make me feel the pain and desperation of what it means to be on the run. It’s changed the way I see the whole issue and I was already empathetic."

Cummins, who also spoke recently to the AP, says she first thought of the book in 2013 and was inspired for various reasons. Her husband emigrated from Ireland and she remembered the many years it took for him to get his green card, and the anxiety, before they married, that he might be deported. She also was moved by what she considered the media's sensationalized coverage of immigration, and, more indirectly, by her lasting grief over a 1991 tragedy when two of her cousins were raped and forced off a bridge, falling to their deaths.

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