American Dirt

I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it  – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down.  Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of  Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.

American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.

Following  Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.

Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions.  As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end.  Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.

The story is a thrilling page-turner.  Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely.  As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:

“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”

However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds.  Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.”  And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).

Right, this is fiction, isn’t it?  Not a documentary.  Is the danger that some readers will forget?  Maybe…

My New American Life

You may be able to take the girl out of the country, but it’s harder to take the country out of the girl.  In the case of Francine Prose’s My New American Life, the country is Albania. Twenty-six year old Lula has left Albania to find the American dream, and lands a job in New Jersey as a nanny to a sullen teenager. His father, Mr. Stanley, a Wall Street banker, has a lawyer friend, who can pull strings to get her a work visa.

She settles into an easy life of being around for Zeke when he comes from school, making egg-white omelets on Sundays – substituting for the mother who left abruptly on a Christmas Eve.  Encouraged by Mr. Stanley and her lawyer, Lula tells and writes stories about her homeland, exaggerating her family’s participation in the war and the horrors they endured – using old folktales to enliven her plots – letting her narrative seem to be real experiences she never had.

“It was nicer to mine the mythical past.  Wasn’t that the Albanian way?  Five minutes into a conversation, Albanians were telling you how they descended from the ancient Greeks…”

Her secure new life is threatened by a group of young Albanians, led by handsomely dangerous Alvo, who conveniently find her alone one day and ask her to hide a gun.

“She wondered which was more dangerous, ditching Alvo’s gun and pissing off the Albanians, or holding on to it and worrying that someone would report her to the INS. The latter seemed less likely.”  

Prose uses Lula’s sarcastic observations of American life to reflect her own opinions of post 9/11 and immigration during the George W. Bush era. Whether or not you agree with her political leanings, the comments are biting and humorous.  But Prose has a hard time sustaining the irony, and it’s tempting to move quickly over the excessive cynicism. Through Lula, Alvo, and friends, Prose also offers glimpses into an immigrant’s life in a strange country, the longing for acceptance, and the search to be with those who share a common history.

The plot line dissolves into a crazy Christmas Eve spectacle with Lula and Alvo in bed,  a surprise intruder, and the gun firing.  Alvo disappears, Zeke finds a college, and  the story takes another turn, with Lula conveniently discovering the possibilities of a court reporting career – almost as though Prose could not figure out how to end her story.  For the finale, Lula gets her American dream with all the trimmings…

“She wanted it all, the green card, the citizenship, the vote. The income taxes! The Constitutional rights. The two cars in the garage. The garage. The driver’s license.”

With tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and a contrived plot, My American Dream may make you think about what it is to be an American.