When I was first asked to review Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt” for the Globe, I was thrilled. With advance blurbs comparing it to “The Grapes of Wrath,” I knew it was going to be a big book, and I wanted to be part of that conversation. And the bang-up opening — the mass murder that sets a mother and her son on their journey north — had me eager to read more.
But once that initial excitement had worn off, I read with growing distaste. The writing is often awkward — the son “breathes into his body” — and many characters seem one-dimensional, the descriptions overblown and nonspecific. For example, the Honduran teen Soledad, a fellow traveler, is “so beautiful she seems almost to glow … A living miracle of splendor. It’s a real problem.” Of course it is, because of course Soledad had been forced into sexual slavery. As her “life deteriorated into a series of lurid traumas,” we learn that her beauty and virtue were her downfall. Degradation followed degradation, at the hands of her captor, who “let one of his homeboys pay him to be alone with her for an hour.” All of which she endured to protect her younger sister “afraid, but still intact.”
As I read, it became clear. For Cummins’s purpose, this 15-year-old and her sister existed to be raped — an example of the violence women flee. That might serve a teaching function, but it also sends the message that our being can be defined by a criminal act perpetrated against us. You don’t have to read Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name” to understand how demeaning that is. As someone who has been assaulted — and who has gone on to enjoy life — it filled me with disgust. I knew then that if I had been reading this book for personal pleasure, I would have put it down at that point.
Right about then, someone forwarded me a profane but impassioned essay by Latinx author Myriam Gurba calling out Cummins’s presumption and racism as “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.” (I try not to read other reviews until I’ve drafted mine, but this piece caught my eye. Warning: It contains bi-lingual profanity.)
I’m of European descent, and I confess that some of the subtleties pointed out in Gurba’s essay concerning Cummins’s personal qualifications to write a story like “Dirt” had eluded me. But what I read made sense — and made me read more carefully. More to the point, it fit with how I felt about those sisters. All of which brought home on a visceral level how this book might affect someone of Central American heritage or whose family had come to the United States seeking refuge more recently than mine.
This was a book that was already getting a ton of attention. At that point, I realized I didn’t want to add to that, especially when there are so many books that don’t get mentions at all.
The Globe, for instance, receives roughly 750 to 1,000 books each month for review. Of these, maybe 12 or 13 get full reviews monthly, a total that jumps to about 16 or 17 averaged annually, counting in seasonal roundups and lists. This is not an aberration: Laurie Hertzel, president of the National Book Critics Circle (to which I belong), reports that about 1,000 traditionally published books arrive each month at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she serves as senior books editor. Although seasonal roundups augment the approximately eight titles per week that get reviewed, she figures that still rounds out to about 50 discrete critiques a month. “That’s a very tiny percentage,” she says, “and our books section is quite robust.”
Granted, any review I wrote of “American Dirt” was going to be negative. It didn’t matter. With critical attention so hard to come by, the truism about “any publicity is good publicity” has extra weight. I know this well from personal experience. Years ago, a book I wrote was savaged on Salon.com. My Amazon sales rank soared.
There were still arguments to be made for coverage. Oprah, for example, has basically taken the tack that at least the book gets people talking about the issues. But my review wasn’t needed for that. Plenty of others, including people who had experience with asylum and immigration, were already starting to weigh in. In addition, there’s a counter-argument to be made that any such discussion sparked by “American Dirt,” with its stereotypes and lopsided perspective, would be shallow, assuaging guilt but not prompting the hard questions we need to address.
Again, for me, the gut check was the portrayal of those sisters. Could Soledad’s persecution raise a discussion about sexual trauma? Yes, as a topic. And the conclusions such a conversation would support? That rape is widespread among vulnerable populations — but also that it defines whomever it touches. That second half wouldn’t be a message I’d want promulgated, and there are better ways of raising the first, and more essential, point. Surely, this is true for discussions of the border and immigration as well.
I was lucky in that my editor and I had already discussed another book before deciding to go ahead with “American Dirt.” That book, “Remembrance,” a debut novel, had gotten promising pre-publication reviews in trade journals like Publishers Weekly. Also, its author, Rita Woods, is a Black woman, which meant her work was even less likely to get review attention than other new books.
And so I asked if I could review “Remembrance” instead and be excused from writing about “American Dirt.”
Which I was, until now.