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Book review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I shied away from American Dirt after hearing controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ bestseller. However, after one of my best friends said she had loved it and I found it at an op shop, I decided to see what the fuss was about.

The book is the story of a mother and her son fleeing cartel violence in Mexico. It also proclaims to reflect and highlight the immigrant experience at a time when Mexican immigration was in the public eye due to Trump and his wall.

It was utterly engaging and difficult to put down. While I had watched programs like Narcos dealing with cartels in South America, I had never had much understanding of the impact of their violence on individuals and their families.

American Dirt provided a personal portrait of the frightening and devastating reality of life for those who encounter the cartels, and of the difficult and dangerous journey to the US from Mexico. The issue can seem faceless to those who live a long way from the heat and dust of the US/Mexico border so it was fascinating to get a closer look at what drives people to make the difficult journey.

After reading it, I re-read articles explaining why the novel was not as helpful to the cause as it claims to be. Mexican writers and critics claim that Cummins promotes stereotypes, viewing Mexicans through a North American lens. This criticism made me realise that one of the reasons why I was so moved by the book was that those stereotypes seemed so real to me.

They claimed a Mexican author could have written a more authentic novel that properly reflected the experiences of immigration and cartel violence.

Ultimately, I believe that fiction writers should not have to have experienced a situation to write about it, as long as the reader is capable of understanding their book is fiction.

I’m pleased I read American Dirt, but also recognise some of the issues that have concerned readers. I also look forward to reading works by Mexican writers who can provide a different perspective on immigration and cartels in their country.

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