Life, liberty, and the pursuit of something — not even happiness, maybe, as much as permanence, or just the absence of overwhelming fear — lie at the center of two new books out this month. One, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land, is nonfiction, though it often reads more like a diary or a dream journal; the other, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, is a novel whose premise could have been stripped from a CNN news crawl.
Both present flawed but deeply compelling embeds in a subject whose currency is hardly in question: leaving behind the known hardships of Mexico for the increasingly uncertain opportunities of America. Dirt will likely be considered the more accessible of the two and arrives, accordingly, with the bigger megaphone; one glowing blurb — nestled next to high praise by the likes of Stephen King, Ann Patchett, and John Grisham — calls it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” (Oprah Winfrey also selected it for her book club.)
Grisham singles out the story for being “important and timely, but not political,” a subjective kind of compliment that may also be key to the book’s future success: Cummins’ cleanly drawn tale of a woman and her young son fleeing cartel violence in the once-idyllic resort town of Acapulco speaks in the universal language of mothers and children, grief and perseverance (though her actual prose dips, early and often, into vivid fragments of Spanish).
Happily married and devoted to 8-year-old Luca, bookstore owner Lydia Quixano Pérez watches her tidy world suddenly and savagely implode when a piece that her journalist husband has written about the local drug kingpin invokes el jefe’s rage, and a subsequent massacre at her niece’s backyard quinceañera. Within minutes 16 members of her immediate family are dead, and Lydia, a traumatized Luca in tow, is on the run. Without the proper documents required for international travel — returning home for them means almost certain death — the pair are forced to follow the route of countless migrants before them: a journey riddled with danger and desperation but blessed by crucial acts of human kindness, too.
That Cummins (A Rip in Heaven) has approached her subject with extensive research and clear empathy can’t quite mitigate the discomfort that, as a white woman so far removed from the migrant crisis, this story isn’t strictly hers to tell. If Dirt offers engaging, approachable fiction, Castillo’s Children has the much sharper ring of lived experience; after crossing over at age 5 in 1993, he spent years in a liminal state of not knowing: Would a rolled stop sign, an unguarded moment, lead to arrest and deportation for himself, his siblings, his parents? “I saw agents in trees,” he recalls. “I saw their heads popping out of the ground like tulips. I felt their hands touching every coin in my pocket.” His dad eventually gives up the fight, and returns to rural Tepechitlán; his mother does everything she can to remain with the family in California.
For Castillo, a poet and professor, it’s never as simple as staying or going, even with a DACA permit and a wife whose own papers are his easiest path to legal residency. A profound sense of disconnection follows him on both sides of the border; as do his struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, substance abuse, and estrangement from his father. Those psychic loops, though, and the sometimes fragmentary quality of his writing, feel only appropriate. And it makes sense too that the titles of both books evoke some sense of rootedness, or soil; in an era defined more and more by man-made boundaries and enforced otherness, what could be more human than wanting to claim a place, and call it home?
Children of the Land: B+
American Dirt: B
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