American Dirt is the most gripping read that you could ever imagine. From the first chapter where our main characters Lydia and Luca cower in a bathroom while their sixteen closes family members get brutally mowed down by gun fire in their yard we are on a danger filled drama for 450 pages that is not easy to put down.
Lydia’s husband Sebastian was a journalist who exposed Javier a king pin in a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca immediately go on the run feeling that Javier’s cartel can track them down at any stage.
We therefore find ourselves in the shoes of a middle class woman and son who are not the kind of people we consider as migrants. Cummins is attempting to put middle class judgemental America into this migrant tale. We follow them through road blocks and after the meet two Honduran teenagers, also on the run from the rape of drug cartels, we travel with them on the notorious La Bestia, the train that migrants ride on the roof of in their dream to escape.
Cummins is a great writer and has the ability to write this fast moving drama and then scatter it with these tender and angry paragraphs of emotions. Her father died just as she started writing and grief runs through it. Hope is also found in some scarily broken places. She has also a poetic flair for setting the geographical scenes.
What I love as much as the surprise of being able to see our middle class selves in a migrants life is how she humanises the bad guys. Javier is a friend of hers, whom she really likes, before she discovers he is the brutal menacing leader of a drug cartel who threatens her life. She empathetically grieves with him at one stage in the book.
Then there is what I am looking for in any art. Light from all quarters as the reformed theologians call it. The Gospel According To… as I have called it. American Dirt has lots of the spiritual. There is plenty of praying going on throughout. It seems to most of these migrants and those who take care of them, many of them in religious groups, as familiar as breathing.
Then there are my three top soul insights.
The first one is when Lydia and Luca seek refuge from an old friend of Lydia’s husband Carlos. Along with his wife Meredith he is now involved in an independent evangelical Church.
When they find Carlos in that church, their dilemma is that the the next part of the journey through Mexico will be swarming with drug cartels. They will be blocking all the roads making Lydia and Luca very vulnerable to Javier’s drug buddies who she knows are after them.
Carlos believes he has a way through. There is a Mission Team from Indiana at the church. On their way back to their flight home in Mexico City Carlos plans that they smuggle Lydia and Luca through the roadblocks in their minibus.
Meredith is aghast. How can he think of putting the lives of this Mission Team in jeopardy? It would be too dangerous. Carlos’s question is a cutting one for those of us who, like I do every year, go on Mission Trips to LEDC (Less Economically Developed Countries):
“They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown kids.”
Wow! There has been a lot of consideration in Christian Mission over the last 20 years about such mission teams. It has produced books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts. Jeanine Cummins’ provocation here needs thought about.
Later in the book Lydia and Luca, by this time accompanied by the Honduran teenagers Soledad and Rebeca, come across another follower of Jesus who was not about the pancakes or selfies.
They have climbed back off La Bestia train and are trying to get into a nearby town. A car pulls up and the man says he is a doctor and has a clinic. Lydia is by this stage ultra suspicious and is not sure whether to trust the man. Eventually Soledad who is least trusting of all asks:
“And why do you want to help us anyway?
The man touches the gold crucifix around his neck. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’
Lydia automatically blesses herself. ‘A stranger and you welcomed me’. She completes the Scripture, passing the water to Rebeca…
I loved this. The hairs on the back of my soul stood up. The authentic positives of following Jesus recognised in a modern novel. I am not sure where Jeanine’s Biblical worldview comes from but I wonder was this a genuine line that she heard while she researched the book among those from churches helping Migrants on the border.
There is one other insightful in the book that tugged at me. They are about to meet the coyote that will see them safe across the border and through the dangerous desert to Tuscon. Lydia is worrying about the coyote’s trustworthiness, Giving him all her money. Once the money is handed over what incentives will he have left? Will he just leave them for dead? What choice does she have?
“So, Lydia is worried about all these things, and yet, she has a new understanding about the futility of worry. The worst will either happen or not happen, and there’s no worry that will make a difference in either direction.”
I was immediately hearing Jesus trying to share this in the Sermon on the Mount, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
I was also acutely aware that all the things I worry about, even in trying to navigate the borderland desert of a pandemic, are minor worries compared to what the majority of the rest of the world have to deal with… and seem to deal with with dignity, more trust and less fuss than those of us who are spoiled and feel entitled.
Which bring me back to what Cummins set out to do. She not only puts us middle class entitled on the La Bestia journey in Mexico to see the migrant crisis from a very different perspective but she reflects it back on us and the lives we live in our comfortable world, to see that in a different perspective too.