Jeanine Cummins’s controversial new novel reveals the limits of fiction that wants readers to empathize.
American Dirt, the much discussed new novel from the author Jeanine Cummins, opens with a perfunctory slaughter. While the Mexican bookseller Lydia (most often referred to as Mami) escorts her 8-year-old son, Luca, to the restroom in his grandmother’s Acapulco home, members of a local cartel kill every other member of their family. After unleashing a torrent of bullets—during a quinceañera barbecue, no less—the men of Los Jardineros place a cardboard sign on the body of Lydia’s journalist husband, Sebastián. The message: TODA MI FAMILIA ESTÁ MUERTA POR MI CULPA. It is my fault my entire family is dead.
Thus begins the terror-driven journey at the heart of Cummins’s book. Lydia and Luca must flee the world they know best in order to escape the reverberations of the cartel’s wrath toward Sebastián, who continued to write about Los Jardineros despite multiple warnings. In its 400 pages, American Dirt paints a specific portrait of one grief-stricken mother and child weaving their way through perilous territory in pursuit of a safer life in the United States. But Cummins conceived of the book as part of a larger project, too. In a four-page author’s note at the end of American Dirt, she writes of her discomfort with how Latino migrants are most often characterized. “At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep,” she says. “We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings ... I hope to create a pause where the reader may begin to individuate,” Cummins continued. “When we see migrants on the news, we may remember: These people are people.”
On the surface, this is an anodyne ambition. But works like American Dirt, which labor to provoke empathy in an imagined audience—one that shares far more in common with the author than with the characters—are limited by the impossibility and soft egotism of their aims. “Polemical fiction,” as the author Lauren Groff dubbed American Dirt in her fretful New York Times review, “is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world.” But while Groff asserts that works such as American Dirt exist to make the reader “act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision,” Cummins’s novel actually offers little by way of actionable material. Instead, it inspires empathetic despair in a hypothetical American reader. Along with the rapturous praise that first accompanied it, the book encourages comfort with this facsimile of justice alone.