Forced to flee the Mexican city of Acapulco, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca make their way north toward the United States. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
... a literary novel, to be sure, with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale ... American Dirt's most profound achievement, though, is something I never could've been told about nor anticipated. Of all the 'What if?' novels I've read in recent years—many of them dystopian—American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it's like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment ... Cummins' novel brings to life the ordeal of individual migrants, who risk everything to try to cross into the U.S. But, in its largest ambitions, the novel also captures what it's like to have the familiar order of things fall away and the rapidity with which we humans, for better or worse, acclimatize ourselves to the abnormal. Propulsive and affecting, American Dirt compels readers to recognize that we're all but a step or two away from 'join[ing] the procession.'
... thrilling and devastating ... In its representation of the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, American Dirt is as powerful as last year’s Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli, though the two novels have fashioned their storytelling from very different cloth ... Cummins’s straightforward account relies on intimate, relatable realism ... offers both a vital chronicle of contemporary Latin American migrant experience and a profoundly moving reading experience. If only we could press it into the hands of people in power. If only a story this generously told would inspire them to expand the borders of their vision of America.
The motives of the book may be unimpeachable, but novels must be judged on execution, not intention. This peculiar book flounders and fails ... everything follows as predictably as possible ... There is a fair amount of action in the book—chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal—but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy ... the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives ... Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin ... The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist ... What thin creations these characters are—and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets ... The tortured sentences aside, American Dirt is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that 'these people are people,' while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.