American Dirt (Oprah's Book Club)
February 2020 Indie Next List
— Thatcher Svekis, DIESEL, A Bookstore, Santa Monica, CA
View the List
#1 New York Times Bestseller
OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK
“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
También de este lado hay sueños. On this side, too, there are dreams.
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.
Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.
Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed. It is a literary achievement filled with poignancy, drama, and humanity on every page. It is one of the most important books for our times.
Already being hailed as "a Grapes of Wrath for our times" and "a new American classic," Jeanine Cummins's American Dirt is a rare exploration into the inner hearts of people willing to sacrifice everything for a glimmer of hope.
Praise For American Dirt (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel…
Editors’ Choice from The New York Times Book Review
#1 Indie Next Pick for February
January 2020 Library Reads Pick
A Most-Anticipated Book of the Season/Year: The New York Times • O, The Oprah Magazine • Vogue • Marie Claire • Real Simple • Elle • Entertainment Weekly • Woman’s Day • Literary Hub • Parade • Chicago Tribune • The Washington Post • Time • Fast Company • Forbes • Esquire • USA Today • PopSugar • Bustle • The New York Times Book Review
“American Dirt just gutted me, and I didn’t just read this book—I inhabited it….Everything about this book was so extraordinary. It’s suspenseful, the language is beautiful, and the story really opened my heart. I highly recommend it, and you will not want to put it down. It is just a magnificent novel.”
“American Dirt is a literary novel with nuanced character development and arresting language; yet, its narrative hurtles forward with the intensity of a suspense tale. Its most profound achievement, though, is something I never could’ve been told…American Dirt is the novel that, for me, nails what it’s like to live in this age of anxiety, where it feels like anything can happen, at any moment.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air
“This tense, illuminating novel takes off like a rocket…”
—People (Book of the Week)
“This novel is a heart-stopping story of survival, danger, and love…”
—The New York Times
“I devoured the novel in a dry-eyed adrenaline rush….A profoundly moving reading experience.”
—The Washington Post
“A heart-pounding, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-till-3 a.m., adrenaline-pumping story…that examines, with sensitivity, care, and complexity of thought, immense, soul-obliterating trauma and its aftermath.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The story is masterfully composed of timeless elements: the nightmare logic of grief, the value of human kindness, the power of love to drive us to do the unimaginable…Cummins proves that fiction can be a vehicle for expanding our empathy.”
“Destined to be a classic.”
“Heartfelt and hopeful, American Dirt is a novel for our times. Thrilling, epic, and unforgettable….”
“Stunning…remarkable….A novel as of the zeitgeist as any, American Dirt is also an account of love on the run that will never lose steam.”
“This one will tug at your heartstrings.”
“The very best novel I’ve read about immigrants (and the best novel I’ve read over the past year)….American Dirt is being compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and the comparison is apt.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
"As literature, American Dirt is modern realism at its finest: a tale of moral challenge in the spirit of Theodore Dreiser wrapped inside a big-hearted social epic like The Grapes of Wrath. American Dirt is going to be the defining book of 2020.”
—New York Journal of Books
“I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt. Its plot is tight, smart, and unpredictable. Its message is important and timely, but not political. Its characters are violent, compassionate, sadistic, fragile, and heroic. It is rich in authenticity. Its journey is a testament to the power of fear and hope and belief that there are more good people than bad.”
“American Dirt is both a moral compass and a riveting read. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never stop thinking about it.”
—Ann Patchett, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Dutch House and Commonwealth
“Why do we read fiction? By immersing ourselves in the lives of fictional characters we gain emotional depth, breadth, and empathy. We become more human. I have never felt more changed—or challenged—by a book than I have by American Dirt. It’s truly a revelation.”
—Elin Hilderbrand, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Summer of ’69
“Relevant, powerful, extraordinary. It is a remarkable combination of joy and terror, infused always with the restorative power of a mother's love and the endless human capacity for hope. I hope everyone reads it and is as moved by it as I was.”
—Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone
“Riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment. Jeanine Cummins makes us all LIVE and BREATHE the refugee story.”
—Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies
“American Dirt is an extraordinary piece of work, a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it. The prose is immaculate, and the story never lets up. This book will be an important voice in the discussion about immigration and los migrantes; it certainly puts the lie to the idea that we are being besieged by ‘bad hombres.’ On a micro scale—the story scale, where I like to live—it’s one hell of a novel about a good woman on the run with her beautiful boy. It’s marvelous.”
“From its heart-stopping first sentence to its heart-shattering last, Cummins’s story of immigrants is just what we need now. Gritty yet sensitive, realistic yet hopeful, grand and granular, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a Grapes of Wrathfor our times.”
—Don Winslow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Border
“The most gripping thriller you’ll read this side of Marathon Man. This thing goes harder than a Lee Child novel and the writing sings. Deserves to be a Gone Girl-level hit.”
—Joe Hill, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman and Heart-Shaped Box
“Jeanine Cummins writes with such grace, compassion, and precision that I could not stop reading.”
—Erika Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
“This is a book that’s both hard to read and hard to put down and will no doubt spark a lot of conversation.”
“Time to sink into American Dirt.”
“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
—Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“American Dirt is an urgent, blistering, unforgettable book. In her portrayal of Lydia and Luca, a mother and son forced to leave their Mexican home, Jeanine Cummins has given face to migrants everywhere who flee violence and near-certain death in search of only one thing: a chance at life. Beautifully written, thrilling in its propulsive force, American Dirt is a new American classic.”
—Tara Conklin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Last Romantics
“The story of the migrant is the story of our times, and Jeanine Cummins is a worthy chronicler. At once intimate and epic, American Dirt is an exhilarating and beautiful book about parental love and human hope.”
—Rumaan Alam, author of That Kind of Mother and Rich and Pretty
“Urgent and unforgettable, American Dirt leaps the borders of the page and demands attention, especially now.”
—Sarah Blake, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Postmistress and The Guest Book
“A powerful, moving, and unforgettable read.”
—Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us
“This extraordinary novel about unbreakable determination will move the reader to the core.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lydia and Luca are utterly believable characters, and their breathtaking journey moves with the velocity and power of one of those freight trains. Intensely suspenseful and deeply humane, this novel makes migrants seeking to cross the southern U.S. border indelibly individual.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“American Dirt may be the don’t-miss book of 2020.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Cummins is a skilled and empathetic chronicler of trauma and its aftermath…American Dirt is an immersive story, fueled by the elemental love of a mother for her son.”
—Minnesota Star Tribune
“This gripping story of a mother and son on Mexico’s migrant trail combines humane intentions with propulsive, action-movie execution.”
“This is a book everyone should read.”
—Woman & Home
“This powerful new novel promises readers a ride they’ll never forget.”
Flatiron Books, 9781250209764, 400pp.
Publication Date: January 21, 2020
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Throughout the novel, Lydia thinks back on how, when she was living a middle-class existence, she viewed migrants with pity: “All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them” (chapter 10, page 94). Do you think the author chose to make Lydia a middle-class woman as her protagonist for a reason? Do you think the reader would have had a different entry point to the novel if Lydia started out as a poor migrant? Would you have viewed Lydia differently if she had come from poor origins? How much do you identify with Lydia?
2. Sebastián persists in running his story on Javier even though he knows it will put him and his family in grave danger. Do you admire what he did? Was he a good journalist or a bad husband and father? Is it possible he was both? What would you have done if you were him?
3. Lydia looks at Luca and thinks to herself: “Migrante. She can’t make the word fit him. But that’s what they are now. This is how it happens” (chapter 10, page 94). Lydia refers to her and Luca becoming migrants as something that happened to them rather than something they did. Do you think the author intentionally made this sentence passive? Do you think language allows us to label things as “other” that is, in a way, tantamount to self-preservation? Does it allow us to compartmentalize things that are too difficult to comprehend?
4. When Lydia is at the Casa del Migrante, she learns the term cuerpomático—“human ATM machine”—and what it means. Were you surprised to learn how dangerous the passage is, and for female migrants in particular?
5. When Lydia, Luca, Soledad, and Rebeca are at the Casa del Migrante, the priest warns them to turn back: “If it’s only a better life you seek, seek it elsewhere…. This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you” (chapter 17, page 168). Were you surprised that he would be issuing such a dire warning when he must know how desperate they are to be there in the first place? Under what conditions might you decide to leave your homeland?
6. When they get to the US–Mexican border, Beto says, “This is the whole problem, right? Look at that American flag over there—you see it? All bright and shiny; it looks brand-new. And then look at ours. It’s all busted up and raggedy” (chapter 26, page 273). Later he says, “I mean, those estadounidenses are obsessed with their flag” (chapter 26, page 274). Do you agree with Beto? Do the flags symbolize something more than just the countries they represent?
7. The term “American” only appears once in the novel. Did you notice? Why do you think the author made this choice?
8. When Luca finally crosses over to the United States, he’s disappointed: “The road below is nothing like the roads Luca imagined he’d encounter in the USA. He thought every road here would be broad as a boulevard, paved to perfection, and lined with fluorescent shopfronts. This road is like the crappiest Mexican road he’s ever seen. Dirt, dirt, and more dirt” (chapter 31, page 329). Discuss the significance of the title, American Dirt. What do you think the author means by it?
9. “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. She heard their stories on the news radio while she cooked dinner in her kitchen. Mothers pushing strollers thousands of miles, small children walking holes into the bottoms of their pink Crocs, hundreds of families banding together for safety, gathering numbers as they walked north for weeks, hitching rides in the backs of trucks whenever they could, riding La Bestia whenever they could, sleeping in fútbol stadiums and churches, coming all that way to el norte to plead for asylum. Lydia chopped onions and cilantro in her kitchen while she listened to their histories. They fled violence and poverty, gangs more powerful than their governments. She listened to their fear and determination, how resolved they were to reach Estados Unidos or die on the road in that effort, because staying at home meant their odds of survival were even worse. On the radio, Lydia heard those walking mothers singing to their children, and she felt a pang of emotion for them. She tossed chopped vegetables into hot oil, and the pan sizzled in response. That pang Lydia felt had many parts: it was anger at the injustice, it was worry, compassion, helplessness. But in truth, it was a small feeling, and when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Dinner would be bland” (chapter 26, pages 276–77). Do you think the narrator intends for the reader to wholeheartedly censure Lydia in this scene? Do you think Lydia is a stand-in for the reader and that the author is sending a broader message? After reading the author’s note, do you think the author includes herself in this group?
10. “I heard if your life is in danger wherever you come from, they’re not allowed to send you back there.”
To Lydia it sounds like mythology, but she can’t help asking anyway, “You have to be Central American? To apply for asylum?”
Beto shrugs. “Why? Your life in danger?”
Lydia sighs. “Isn’t everyone’s?”
(chapter 26, page 277)
If you were writing the rules for asylum eligibility, what would they be?
11. Toward the end of the novel, Soledad “sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side. Her fingers are in el norte. She spits through the fence. Only to leave a piece of herself there on American dirt” (chapter 28, page 301). Why do you think Soledad spits over the border? Is doing so a victory for her?
12. “Luca wonders if they’re moving perpendicular to that boundary now, that place where the fence disappears and the only thing to delineate one country from the next is a line that some random guy drew on a map years and years ago” (chapter 30, page 317). In his 1971 book Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls came up with what he called the “veil of ignorance.” Rawls asked readers to think about how they would design an ideal society if they knew nothing of their own sex, gender, race, nationality, individual tastes, or personal identity. Do you think the decision-makers of the borders might’ve made a different decision if they’d donned the veil of ignorance? Do you think borders are a necessary evil or might their delineation serve a societal good? Do you think that the world would be a better place if we all brought Rawls’s thought experiment to bear in our everyday individual and collective decision making?
13. Why do you think there are birds on the cover of the novel?
14. “But the moment of the crossing has already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante” (chapter 30, page 323). Do you think Lydia is better or worse off for not having known about the moment of her boundary crossing? What importance do rituals have in marking milestones in our lives? Can the done be undone, the past rewinded?
15. Was Javier’s reaction to Marta’s death at all understandable? Humanizing? Do you believe that he didn’t want Lydia dead? Is what he did, in the name of his daughter, any less paternal than what Lydia does for Luca is maternal?