American Dirt  

Jeanine Cummins






Lydia Perez owns a bookstore in Acapulco. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist investigating the drug cartels that have created so much violence in their area. It is now an unsafe location not only for the citizens, but also for the tourists. They have one son, Luca, who is now eight. Lydia keeps her most personal favorite books in a certain area of her bookstore. One day, a man comes in and as he looks through her store, he selects these books. At the counter, they discuss his selection and find common interests. His name is Javier Fuentes. Javier becomes a frequent customer and he and Lydia become very good friends. He tells her about his daughter, his wife, and other women.  As time passes. Lydia realizes through conversations with her husband, that Javier is “La Lechuza”, head of the Los Jardineros drug cartel. Sebastian is about to publish an article exposing Javier as the "La Lechuza" and the cartel that has terrorized Acapulco. Lydia thinks that Javier will approve of the letter and find it flattering.


The story opens with Luca in the bathroom at his abuela’s house. The entire family is there to celebrate his cousin’s quinceanera. The family is having a large cookout. Lydia has come inside to check on Luca. As the two are in the bathroom, shots rang out. Lydia grabs Luca and presses him against the shower wall to shield him.  She hears three separate voices and one asks about Luca and Sebastian. Lydia hears men searching through the house. She remains hidden from the one man who does look into the bathroom. Once all is quiet and she is sure that the men have gone, she goes outside to find that her entire family is dead. Sixteen people are dead, including Sebastian and her mother. She calls the police. When they arrive and process the scene, she realizes that it is Javier’s cartel, sent their in retribution of the article. She knows the police will not be able to help her and that she needs to act fast. She grabs her mother’s bag and other various belongings that she can carry and fit into her bag. She finds her mother’s money and takes that along with the ATM card. She and Luca are now on the run. She finds a hotel to spend the night and pays cash. The hotel clerk makes a call and now Javier knows where she is. Lydia catches on and the two are off again. She knows that she has an uncle in Denver, Colorado and decides that is where they will go. Their long journey begins.


Lydia and Sebastian met in Mexico City where they attended college. Sebastian’s best friend and wife still live there. If she and Luca can get there, it is her hope that the friends will be able to help her from there. Lydia knows that she still needs to be very careful as Javier is still looking for her. Through conversations, Lydia learns ways that the migrants use to get to the border. She learns that the fastest way is by the train known as La Bestia. Lydia and Luca arrive at the site of the tracks where other migrants are waiting. They hear of different ways to jump on top of the train, many are horrifying. Lydia notices two girls waiting. The girls are sisters, Soledad and Rebeca. Rebeca is the younger sister. Their cousin in Maryland has arranged with El Chacal, a coyote, to meet them when they arrive at the border. He will cross them over to safety. The sisters tell Lydia the safest way to make the jump. When the train comes, the sisters jump and although hesitant, Lydia and Luca follow. From that moment on, the four travel together. Lydia notices a boy further up the train looking at her. He looks at his phone and then back at her. Lydia fears that he is there for her and Luca. Lorenzo makes his way down the train towards them. He knows who they are but he assures them that the reason he is on the train, is to escape the cartel. He wants out and that is why he is there. As they continue their journey, they befriend a young boy from Nogates. He was living in a dump there. He sold some drugs he had found to the owner of the dump who gave him a roll of money. Beto is alone and suffers with asthma. He pulls out his inhaler when he needs it to help him breathe. It is empty but he seems to find comfort and relief by the action.


The journey continues. There are stays at migrant camps and more times to jump on La Bestia. Lydia and Luca arrive at Sebastian’s best friend for help. The wife is hesitant but does agree to let them travel out of Mexico City in the vans they are using to return American teens that were staying with them on a missionary stay. As they continue their trek, they will encounter the brutality, fear, horror, the power of money, and the sheer determination it takes to step on American dirt.


This novel describes what it takes for a very small group of people to migrate across the Mexican border and why they do it.

We did not know until the time for our meeting, that we found out about the controversy surrounding the book. We did not consider it in our rating. Our rating reflects the book itself, a look into the reasons and horrors that causes a person to risk his/her life for a better one in the Unites States.