There is a fair amount of action in the book — chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal — but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy. There is subtext announced at booming volume. There are the strained similes (when Lydia finds she is unable to pray, “she believes it’s a divine kindness. Like a government furlough, God has deferred her nonessential agencies”). There are perplexing bird analogies (the beautiful sisters look at Lydia, “their expressions ranging like a quarrel of sparrows”; “Mami’s cry, a shrill, corporeal thing, it bubbles out of her like a fully formed bird and it flies, but Mami doesn’t”). Then there are the real masterpieces, where the writing grows so lumpy and strange it sounds like nonsense poetry. I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives. Lydia’s expression “is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It’s as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they’re all pulling at once. One from the eyebrow, one from the lip, another at the nose, one from the cheek.” Yes, of course. That expression.
Why should this matter? you might ask (or Cummins might protest). Shouldn’t the story matter, her effort to individuate people portrayed as a “faceless brown mass” (her words)? In the book’s afterword, she agonizes about not being the right person to write the book (“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”) but decides that she has a moral obligation to the story.
I’m of the persuasion that fiction necessarily, even rather beautifully, requires imagining an “other” of some kind. As the novelist Hari Kunzru has argued, imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectives is an act of ethical urgency. The caveat is to do this work of representation responsibly, and well. The journalist Katherine Boo, who wrote about a Mumbai slum in her National Book Award-winning “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” and has reported on poverty and disability, often speaks of the “earned fact” — the research necessary before making a claim. “Getting it right matters way more than whether you can make people care,” she has said.
Cummins has put in the research, as she describes in her afterword, and the scenes on La Bestia are vividly conjured. Still, the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider. The writer has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin: Characters are “berry-brown” or “tan as childhood” (no, I don’t know what that means either). In one scene, the sisters embrace and console each other: “Rebeca breathes deeply into Soledad’s neck, and her tears wet the soft brown curve of her sister’s skin.” In all my years of hugging my own sister, I don’t think I’ve ever thought, “Here I am, hugging your brown neck.” Am I missing out?
The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.
What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations. The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous. The children sound like tiny prophets. Occasionally there’s a flare of deeper, more subtle characterization, the way Luca, for example, experiences “an uncomfortable feeling of both thrill and dread” when he finally lays eyes on the other side of the border, or how, in the middle of the terror of escape, Lydia will still notice that her son needs a haircut.
But does the book’s shallowness paradoxically explain the excitement surrounding it? The tortured sentences aside, “American Dirt” is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.