American Dirt: 'Migrants are people. They are people, they are people…'

Approach with caution is my usual motto when opening a book whose pre-publication hype has been ratcheted up to 11. And the pre-publication noise around this novel has endured for over six months prior to publishing.

But caution was not required. Hype or no hype, American Dirt is the novel that, as the publicists promised, everyone will be talking about this year. And as another reviewer put it, “Even if this is the only book you read this year, you should read American Dirt”. It’s a sad indictment, though, on how inured we have become that it takes a work of fiction to wake us up to the terrible suffering of migrancy.

Lydia’s ordinary middle-class life in Acapulco is blown apart when her family is slaughtered at a birthday party. Her husband, her mother, sister… 16 people in all are sprayed with bullets while she and her eight-year-old son Luca hide in the bathroom. The paralysis of Lydia’s trauma doesn’t last very long as she immediately realises she must flee with her son. Her journalist husband’s recent newspaper article about the Mexican drug cartels and their overlords is, she knows, the motive for the murders. And so she leaves Acapulco, knowing that in the space of a few short minutes she has become a migrant.

“Lydia had been aware of the migrant caravans coming from Guatemala and Honduras in the way comfortable people living stable lives are peripherally aware of destitution… Mothers pushing strollers thousands of miles, small children walking holes into the bottoms of their pink Crocs, hundreds of families banding together for safety.”

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So writes the author, describing in a couple of lines how most of us see the worldwide migrant surge. It’s a news item to us, it’s something that happens on TV. But in imagining the story of one mother and child on the run, Cummins vividly captures everyday life for migrants everywhere. Her protagonist is lucky – if one can call surviving a family massacre lucky – in that she can pay a ‘coyote’ to help them cross the US border. One shudders to think about those who can’t.

Because Luca has no passport, they’re unable to fly, so when bus routes are exhausted they have no choice but to board La Bestia, the freight train that runs across both Americas, on which so many lives are lost regularly from migrants attempting to board and not succeeding. Two teenage girls help Lydia and Luca in their first jump from a railway walkover bridge. The girls are Honduran and their need to leave is as urgent as Lydia’s. From there on, this hobbled-together family of sorts continues on a journey of extreme endurance.

The empathy in this novel elevates it far above that of heart-stopping adventure story, albeit rooted firmly in fact.

Cummins captures brilliantly the gritty steel of a mother’s love. Luca keeps Lydia going; it’s for him she must persist, even when her own will to live falters. And it is in the creation of these fictional characters that we witness the indescribable hardship, never mind the danger, suffered by those human beings whom Trump slams into cages.

The author’s own note resounds long after you’ve finished reading: “Migrants are people. They are people, they are people, they are people.”

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