Fresh off its publication, the heavily anticipated novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins has received the stamp of approval from literary taste-maker Oprah Winfrey. In a Twitter video announcing Cummins’ novel as her latest pick, Winfrey praises the novel.
“Hellooooo fellow book lovers, I’m so excited to tell you about this next Oprah’s Book Club pick,” Winfrey said. “ … I tell you, I had to pick this book. From the first page, first sentence, I was in. I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up, and I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.”
Cummins is headlining the Northwest Passages Book Club on March 12. But she isn’t the only Northwest Passages author to get the nod from Winfrey; novelist Peter Heller, who visited in June, received recognition for his 2012 novel “The Dog Stars,” and Spokane author Jess Walter, for his 2012 novel “Beautiful Ruins.”
“There always was a sense of excitement, but when it was selected by Oprah for her book club, it all went to another level,” Rob Curley, The Spokesman-Review editor, said. “We’ve had authors who we’re selected by Oprah before, but none where it happened right before an author was going to speak here.”
Since its inception in 2017, Northwest Passages has had a knack for selecting thoughtful storytellers with meteoric trajectories, and Curley said “American Dirt” is a perfect example of the program’s ability to pinpoint an author on the rise.
“We’ve been working since way back in June to get Jeanine Cummins to be a part of one of our Northwest Passages events, which was when we first heard about the release of ‘American Dirt,’ ” Curley said. “As soon as her appearance in Spokane was confirmed in October, we began telling our book club members that this was going to be a night filled with powerful conversations.”
Given the buzz this book has already received, Curley cautions that tickets to the Northwest Passages event will sell out in the blink of an eye. Of course, this would be nothing new to the book club, which has been known to break the traditional mold and host politicians such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a former presidential candidate, Gonzaga University sports legends, controversial cartoonist Wiley Miller and everyone between.
The book already has some popularity in Spokane. Auntie’s Bookstore ordered 30 copies, Spokane County Library has 108 holds for all formats of the book, and Spokane Public Library has 50 copies of the print edition alone.
Winfrey isn’t the only big name who has tipped their hat to Cummins’ prose. Stephen King, known for his fast-paced prose and mass appeal, provided a blurb for the book – complete with a challenge to the reader:
“I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it,” King wrote. “The prose is immaculate, and the story never lets up. 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.”
Pam Houston, who also participated in a Northwest Passages event, reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times. Echoing King, she described the book as a “heart-pounding, page-turning, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-till-3 a.m., adrenaline-pumping story” and highlighted the inherent societal benefits of addressing this topic.
“ ‘American Dirt’ is a vital, well-crafted, compelling and compassionately told story,” Houston wrote. “With a little luck, it might motivate some critical mass of women to rise up and take back the world.” Houston was referring to the 52% of white women who voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
“American Dirt” tells the story of Lydia and her young son, Luca, leaving their life and slaughtered family members behind in Acapulco to flee the cartel. Lydia husband, Sebastian, was a journalist who wrote an expose on Javier, the jefe of the cartel – and Javier was deadset on finishing the job of obliterating the entire family. “American Dirt” detailed their perilous trek to “el norte.” The book takes America’s immigration story and encapsulates it in an intimate tale of family, love and survival.
Lydia’s connection to Javier, a friendship that bloomed over a love of books before Lydia understood his identity, did not help matters. Though Lydia’s feelings were platonic, albeit strong, Javier had fallen in love, and her rejection – illuminated early on in a threatening note she received while hiding out in a hotel with Luca – became his obsession.
Critics of the book, including Donna Miscolta in the Seattle Review of Books, have questioned whether this was Cummins’ story to tell. “Voices like Cummins’ are elevated and rewarded with fat contracts because a white publishing industry catering to white readers, anoints through its white lens a novel that is, in the publisher’s words, ‘IT in capital letters,’ ” Miscolta wrote.
Cummins actually addressed this question in the author’s note, and admitted her reticence with telling this story, but emphasized the often fatal danger migrants face. She also spoke of her husband, who was an undocumented immigrant until 2005, and living with the fear he would be deported.
“Once, on Route 70 outside Baltimore, a policeman pulled us over for driving with a broken taillight,” Cummins wrote. “The minutes that followed while we waited for that officer to return to our vehicle were some of the most excruciating of my life. We held hands in the dark front seat of the car. I thought I would lose him.”
Another factor that influenced her decision to write the book was the rape of her cousin, which was the subject of her memoir, “A Rip in Heaven.” “I became a person who is always, automatically, more interested in stories about victims than perpetrators.”
She sees value in the books that depict the brutal nature of the cartel rather than the lives of its victims, but “the depiction of that violence can feed into the worst stereotypes about Mexico.”
The final factor in her decision was a question of morality.
“I was frustrated by the tenor of the public discourse surrounding immigration in this country,” Cummins wrote. “The conversation always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns. I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago – and it has gotten exponentially worse since then – were characterized within that public discourse.”
While many Latino authors have voiced concerns about the book, it did receive shining praise of prestigious Latina authors Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. In fact, Cisneros appeared as a blurb on the book.
“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas” Cisneros wrote. “It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
Curley said addressing hard questions like these is a perfect fit for the community-focused book club.
“However they achieve it, books are supposed to make you think and talk about difficult things,” Curley said. “That’s when they’re the best and most impactful. Whether that discussion is happening for the reasons originally intended or not, there’s no doubt ‘American Dirt’ is definitely causing people to talk about hard things, which is always a good thing.”
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