American Dirt  

Jeanine Cummins

 

 

3.5

 

 

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.

 

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

3.5

 

 

Alphonse Decuir founded the town of Mallard, named after the ducks in the rice fields, in 1848. He inherited the land from his slave owner father. Upon the father’s death, he gained his freedom. Alphonse was a light colored black man as many of the slaves were. As the town grew and the years went by, Mallard’s residents became lighter, some with blonde and red hair. By 1938, the darkest person would be no darker than the coloring of person who was Greek. Legally, they were black, but many would able to pass as white. This was the case of Alphonse's great-great-granddaughters, the twins, Desiree and Stella Vignes. They had creamy skin, hazel eyes, and wavy hair.

 

The story begins in 1968. Desiree has returned to Mallard after being gone for fourteen years. A man comes running into Lou’s Diner telling everyone that he has seen Desiree walking down the road holding the hand of a young girl who is blacker than coal. Desiree finds her way back to her childhood home. Her mother, Adele, is not only shocked to see her but to see her with this little girl. Desiree explains that she had married a very dark black man in Washington. D.C., that he had become abusive, and that she has fled for the safety of her daughter, Jude, and herself. She still has the bruises on her face and around her neck to prove it. Sam does not know where she is.

 

The twins are very different. Desiree wants to leave Mallard to become an actor. Stella wants to stay in Mallard to become a teacher. When the girls turn sixteen, their mother, Adele, pulls them out of school. She does not believe they need any further education and Adele needs helps with bills. Adele has cleaned houses and taken in odd jobs for years. She has found a house cleaning job for the twins in a mansion nearby. Desiree has been trying to talk Stella into running away with her to New Orleans where she has a friend. It is two hours away. On August 14, 1954, after the Founders Day Dance, the two slip out in the dark of night. They head to New Orleans where they have a friend who gets them a job in a laundromat and finds them a place to live. Stella leaves the laundromat and applies for a job at a bank. When she arrives, all the applicants are white and the person in charge assumes Stella is white. She takes a typing test along with all the other women and gets the job. After she has worked there for a while, her boss, Blake Sanders, tells her that he is being transferred to Boston and asks Stella to go with him. Stella leaves, without telling Desiree that is she is leaving. She also never told Desiree that that the bank believes she is white. Desiree searches for Stella. Realizing that Stella is gone, Desiree finds herself moving north. In 1956, Desiree is working in D.C. where she has learned how to read fingerprints. It is there where she meets Sam, a black attorney working as a prosecutor.

 

Now that Desiree is back in Mallard, she starts working at Lou’s Diner. She decides to go to a bar one day after a shift and sees a familiar person there. It is Early Jones. She knew him years ago when he was a farmhand helping her mother. They connected but soon after, Early disappeared. Early now works as a private investigator searching for people who have disappeared or for other reasons. When Early sees Desiree, he realizes that it is she that he is there to find. As they start talking, Desiree tells him about the past years and what brought her back to Mallard. He sees her bruises and realizes that he cannot let Sam find her.

 

Stella and Blake marry and move to LA. They are quite affluent and live in a close community. They have a daughter, Kennedy. Stella has continued to pass as white and no one, not even Blake, knows of her race and history. She fears of being discovered and the chance of meeting any black person who might be able to discover her secret just by looking at her.

 

Jude has a hard time fitting in at school. She is the darkest person there. There is racism among their own race. Jude takes to running and soon becomes a track star. In 1978, she accepts a scholarship to run track at UCLA. During her time there, she meets a young man, Reese. They become quite close. He tells her that he is trans, (transgender) and is saving money to transition. Jude takes extra jobs as a waitress to help save money for Reese. It is at a catering job where she is the bartender, when she begins talking with a young blonde girl sitting at the bar. The girl is waiting for her mother. When her mother arrives. Jude gets a shock when she sees that the girl’s mother looks just like her own mother. That begins Jude’s search for her Aunt Stella and the ruse she uses on Kennedy to find her.

 

The Vanishing Half title is misleading as you may think it is just about Stella leaving. There are many instances of characters vanishing: Stella from herself, Reese from Therese, Desiree and Jude from Sam, those who Early are hired to find, Kennedy reinventing herself numerous times, and others.

This book goes back and forth between the early 1950’s and the 1990’s.

 

Behold the Dreamers

Imbolo Mbue

3.25

 

 

Jende Jonga is a native of Cameroon, Africa. He grew up in the rural town of Limbe. In 2004, he obtained a three-month visa from The U.S. Embassy in hopes of getting a green card. He arrived in New York City, worked three jobs, and lived in a basement apartment that he shared with six other people. His goal was to earn enough money to bring his girlfriend, Neni and their son, Liomi, to America for a better life. Now an undocumented immigrant, Jende continues to work. In 2006, Neni, on a student visa, and Liomi arrive in New York City. Neni works as a health care aide and attends college courses in chemistry. Her goal is to one day be a pharmacist.

 

It is now 2008. Jende’s cousin, Winston, is a lawyer and has lived in the States legally for many years. He advises Jende to hire an immigration lawyer named Bubaker. Bubaker is a fast-talking Nigerian and convinces Jende to seek asylum by concocting a story about not being able to return to Cameroon for fear of his life from Neni’s father. Jende decides to go along with him. The lawyer reassures Jende that it can takes months and even years before they hear from immigration.

 

Jende interviews to be a chauffeur to Clark Edwards. Clark Edwards is an executive at Lehman Brothers, an investment bank.  He needs Jende to be able to drive himself, his wife Cindy, and his son Mighty, Mighty’s nanny, and at times their older son Vincent at all times of the day and night. Vincent is in college and studying to be a lawyer but has now decided to leave school and travel to India. Jende will be making $35,000 a year. Jende will be able to use the money to pay for Neni’s college classes.

 

As a chauffeur, Jende hears conversations from his passengers. He realizes that Clark is very worried and stressed about the practices that are occurring at Lehman Brothers. When Clark wants to escape the phone calls and work while in the car, he starts to have conversations with Jende, inquiring about Jende, his family, where he came from, and his life. Jende befriends Mighty and Vincent. Jende learns that Cindy will need help in the summer in the South Hamptons. He tells Neni and she is hired. During the summer, Neni befriends Cindy and learns of her past and her secrets.

 

The impending and collapse of the Lehman Brothers, sets into motion fear, dishonesty, revealing secrets, betrayal, along with the decision from immigration, and the effect two family’s from very different backgrounds, affect and intertwine with each other’s lives. Of course within every novel, there is more to the story about each character and the additional characters from their own lives.

 

Behold the Dreamers is a debut novel of author Imbolo Mbue and won the 2016 Pen/Faulkner Award.