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…

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember those sacred pools with waterfalls and lush foliage in the movies that could only be accessed by diving down into an underwater cave, holding your breath, and coming up on the other side – that’s a lacuna. You could be stuck there if you lost track of time and the tide came in – or you might be able to swim out the other side. Kingsolver uses the word “lacuna” as an analogy for Harrison Shepherd’s life as well as the gap between reality and what could be – in her latest novel – The Lacuna.

The Lacuna is Kingsolver’s first book since writing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – her promotion of healthy living off the land from her family’s experience – an environmentally correct plea ahead of its time, and complete with recipes. In Lacuna, although fiction, she delivers lessons again – this time political and historical.

Harrison Shepherd, whose mother is Mexican and father is American, records his life in diaries that steer the story through the Depression of the early 1930s in Washington, D.C., the lives of famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, the politics of Stalin and Trotsky. This is your life, Harrison Shepherd, from Mexico to North Carolina, from obscurity to fame to disgrace and back again.

This is not Bridget Jones Diary. Harrison Shepherd is a serious boy who becomes a sullen man. At first, the diary is an easy-to-follow recounting of growing up, but it soon morphs into a reporter’s third person account of historical events – educational but not compelling. Somehow, you will need to plough through the middle, and it won’t be easy, but here Kingsolver is laying the foundation for her real story.

The letters between Frida and Shepherd revive the action, and Kingsolver’s reviews of Shepherd as a new successful historical fiction writer will make you want to read his books and wonder why you are still muddling through hers. Eventually, the climax and denouement come – with more history lessons – by this time, it is the House on Un-Amercian Activities that plays a role in Shephard’s life. Kingsolver reminds us of one of the ugliest times in American history, as Harrison Shepherd’s life and career slowly come undone.

Not until the very end will you really know what this was all about – a life story about a lonely historical fiction writer who lives history and makes his own fiction – and the power of public opinion to change a life. It’s no wonder Harrison Shepherd feared people. The literal lacuna – that wonderful grotto – plays a part in the ending, but, by that time, you are as tired of people’s misdirected opinions as Shepherd.

Given the speed-of-light transmissions of celebrity foibles, the sound-bites taken out of context today, and the ease of knowing what is “right,” public assumptions are still a cautionary tale. Mrs. Brown, Shepherd’s assistant/secretary critiques his writing with her advice “…there’s no shame in a clever disguise…to say what you believe and still keep out of trouble…”. Are all writers hiding behind characters to say what they believe?

But sometimes a story is just a story. Robert Frost often cautioned the reader, “Don’t press… too hard. The real meaning is the most obvious meaning.”