A strong sense of solidarity

Karin Lock reviews American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

One noticeable impact of the past year’s lockdowns has been the disruption of land migration, particularly at the Mexican-US border. As a result of pandemic restrictions, asylum seekers from across the world have been stranded in Mexico. With migrant shelters closed (so no access to food or protection), these extra hardships worsen an already urgent situation.

Some are internal migrants, seeking safety from the casual and gruesome narco-violence engulfing the country. As warring cartels compete for territory, drug markets have mushroomed. Once touristy, Acapulco is no longer known for tequila sunrises and vibrant sunsets, it is the new epicentre of gang warfare. It has the highest murder rate in Mexico, and countless have ‘disappeared’.

Acapulco is where Jeanine Cummins’ epic bestseller American Dirt commences. The opening chapter describes a brutal massacre at a barbecue where main character Lydia loses 16 members of her immediate family. She flees the crime scene with her son Luca, petrified that assassins will hunt them down and mindful that corrupt police and lookouts are everywhere.

Pre-bloodbath, Lydia was an independent bookshop owner who paid the monthly cartel tax. But now Lydia is in denial; she is one of those who “insulate themselves from the ugliness… because they couldn’t handle it”.

American Dirt is a frighteningly realistic story of a mother and son’s flight cross-country to the frontier. Covering 1600 miles in 18 days, the pair must ride The Beast. This is a freight train from which passengers jump on and off, whilst attempting to avoid immigration, crushed limbs, and criminals who thieve or kidnap.

The trip is extremely dangerous warns a priest: “if it’s possible for you to turn back, do so now…this path is only for people who have no choice, no other option.” For women, the journey is even more perilous because sexual assault is “the price of getting to el norte (North America)”. Or as one female puts it: “your body is an ATM machine”.

This is a well-researched novel that reveals the complexity of compulsory migration, which the most brutal cartel has infiltrated at every stage of the journey. They impersonate immigration agents to threaten and extort money. They bribe US Border Patrol guards and control the guides who lead migrants through the desert. The terror felt by the characters is palpable.

The book is also an exploration of human compassion and generosity: the kindness of strangers. Women give out free food and chocolate when the train stops; well-wishers with garden hoses refill water bottles; one guy acts as a security guard in his neighbourhood. These moments of hope lift the anxiety permeating the main characters’ internal dialogues.

Along the way, advice and tips are shared about where to get on and off; which routes are safer; what not to do or say. This is the knowledge that will help them survive. The strong sense of solidarity between travelling companions exists because misery and trauma are what they all share. The majority are desperately escaping violence, hunger, or climate change.

American Dirt is part of an ongoing conversation about the border crisis, migrants’ rights, and the devastating drugs war that has claimed 150,000 lives in the last decade. It is menacing that corruption is so deeply interwoven at state security level. However, the book’s title also hints at several uncomfortable truths. It is the drug habits of US citizens that fuel this war and it is US manufacturers that provide the guns and ammunition.