This book came highly recommended, the back cover promising an unputdownable page-turner and in a sense it is. But it is also much more. Picking it up I was instantly caught up in the world of Lydia and her young son Luca, as they hide from drug cartel hitmen who have gatecrashed a barbecue celebration and murdered all her family. That’s sixteen people, including Lydia’s husband, Sebastián. The two hide out in the shower, holding their breath, and as a reader I was holding my breath too.
I held my breath through a lot of this book, actually. The story starts out in Acapulco, where Lydia lives with Sebastián, a journalist who writes exposés on the Mexican drug cartels who hold sway over the country. A fairly new cartel, Los Jardineros, has become dominant in Acapulco, once a peaceful tourist trap, but now its economy is in doubt as visitors stay away. Lydia befriends Javier, a regular visitor to her bookshop who shares her taste in books. Lydia suspects Javier is a little in love with her.
Sebastián writes an article about the cartel, in particular its sophisticated drug lord, a piece that isn’t particularly defamatory, but leaves no doubt about his identity. Even so the family feel no reason to go into hiding, even when Lydia realises who the drug lord really is. This back story is fed throughout the book, little by little, but the main thrust of the plot follows Lydia and Luca’s escape. They have so many near misses, as they first find a way out of Acapulco, then to Mexico City, and on further north in a bid to reach the United States. For the reader, it’s a nail-biting ride.
In another country, you would imagine the police would protect the fugitives, but so many police officers are in the pocket of the cartels, it is impossible to know who to trust. The same thing goes for the people who work at airports, immigration officers and bureaucrats, almost anyone it seems could be on the payroll of Los Jardineros. So using banks and cellphones is out, along with public transport. There is nothing for it but to join the stream of migrants who pass through Mexico from countries further south, like the young girls, Soledad and Rebeca who come from Honduras, and who show Lydia how to ride La Bestia, the cargo trains that head north.
She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs. All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.
Soledad and Rebeca have a harrowing story too, like many of the migrants that ride on top of trains. They must have, to risk their lives like this. It is insanely dangerous and the casualties horrific. And here is Lydia so desperate she is riding La Bestia with her eight-year-old son. At any moment they may be captured and sent back to where they came from. Many of them are, or never heard from again. Then there’s the border crossing to consider, and a trek across the desert. And all the while Lydia cannot be sure she’s not being watched, her movements tracked.
The characters of Lydia and Luca are well rounded and interesting. You get glimpses of Lydia in her shop, educated and well-read, of her life with Sebastián. Luca is a geography nut and uses his knowledge of countries and cities to brilliant effect. Lydia is desperate to protect his innocence and fears he will be scarred for life by these experiences – how can he not be?
It’s a gripping story, made all the more so by the possibility that something like this could really happen. It may be fiction, but it reads true and the migrant experience seems to be well-researched. Sometimes the novel form works well because it puts you in the shoes of someone who may not be so very different from you, who is driven to extreme actions by impossible circumstances. American Dirt is well worth picking up, but it may keep you up at night, so be warned. It will certainly give you a lot to think about. It’s a four and a half star read from me.