Story at a glance

  • ‘American Dirt’ is a novel about a Mexican woman and her son who flee the country and travel across the border into America.
  • The book by Jeanine Cummins was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club pick and released with high praise from early reviewers.
  • In the days following its release, the book has been criticized as divisive and inaccurate, amongst other claims.

What is usually a publicity boon for a novel — being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club pick — may have been the kiss of death for “American Dirt.” Almost immediately, critics on social media had something to say — and it was mostly negative. 

  

The novel by Jeanine Cummins was released on Jan. 21 with glowing reviews adorning the cover from acclaimed authors like John Grisham and Stephen King. It tells the story of a Mexican woman who flees her home in Acapulco with her son after her husband, a journalist, upsets the head of the newest drug cartel. They migrate towards the United States, part of "a sort of helpless impoverished, faceless brown mass" Cummins says she wants to humanize for readers. 

Cummins, whose grandmother is Puerto Rican but identifies as white herself, was seemingly aware of the potential controversy her novel could ignite.

"I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it," Cummins wrote in her author's note. 

She goes on to talk about her husband, an immigrant who was undocumented, but does not include his country of origin, which several reports identified as Ireland. After years traveling in Mexico and the borderlands for research, she wrote the book with the claim that she would be a bridge between Mexican migrants and those who don't know their experience. It is this claim that’s at the heart of much of the ensuing controversy. 

While reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today all share the criticisms made on social media, one of the most quoted and shared was published online by writer Myriam Gurba. 

“Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose,” Gurba wrote. ”Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.” 

Most of the criticism centers around the author’s portrayal of the characters and the correctness of using the migrant crisis as fodder for a fictional work. Some also took objection to the authors use of barbed wire, illustrated on the cover of the novel, as decorations for a book party and Cummins’ own fingernails. 

 

By the nature of its subject, the novel was likely to meet with criticism regardless of Oprah’s endorsement, but the publicity and high praise awarded to the book ahead of its release made it a prime target online. The book, which reportedly earned Cummins a seven-figure deal with Flatiron Books, had an initial print run of 500,000 books, according to Vox. Only time will tell if all publicity is good publicity.

Published on Jan 23, 2020