Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

Posted by mhedwig on March 13, 2020 at 6:15 PM

I have followed the controversy over the author's "right" to write about Latinx migrants, the accusations of "cultural appropriation" hurled at her. I suspect that many of the protesters have not read the book. If they had, they could not have failed to find three-dimensional characters rendered with deep respect and sympathy, full humanity, and a level of detail that shows the author's earnest attempt to make every aspect of her story accurate.


The story itself is gripping, beginning to end. I did question one element -- why Lydia kept her interesting bookstore meetings with Xavier secret from her husband for so long. The kind of close marital relationship portrayed between Lydia and Sebastien made me believe that she would tell him immediately when such an interesting customer came into her store, and report on all Xavier's subsequent visits. Unless she had something to hide -- which she did not. That was the only weak point in the narrative for me.


Returning to the question of an author's right to portray characters of a different ethnicity or culture (or race, or gender, or sexuality, or species, for that matter), I have also recently read Julia Phillips's Disappearing Earth -- why has there been no similar protest over her "presumption" to write about native inhabitants of Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula? The two books are similar in that their authors are white Americans writing about non-American people and locations, who have nonetheless rendered their characters as believable, complex human beings and their settings with the vividness and specificity that can only come from diligent, deep research.

In each case, the authors have clearly done their utmost to enter into the life circumstances, experience, and consciousness of people very different from themselves, and have given the reader that access as well. The world would be a better place if everyone tried as hard as Cummins and Phillips have to identify with "the other" and build bridges of common humanity.

Categories: Fiction