Chapter 17: Mawkish Sludge in La Casa del Migrante


In the film Love & Human Remains, we’re introduced to a critic as she says “how do you drag out the phrase “it’s shit” to three paragraphs?”

Well, here I am with a very similar problem, because American Dirt is undeniably shit and I need to make my takedown of chapter 17 stretch to 1000 words. So here we go:

It’s shit.


So where does Chapter 17 find our heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez? Now she’s arrived in Celaya, she is “nine days and 426 miles” into her quest to escape with her life from enraged cartel jefe Javier Crespo Fuentes. Those names just ring with the authenticity of an author who spent 4 years researching her book, don’t they? There are some absolute corkers still to come in later chapters, but alas someone else will get the joy of writing about those.

So Lydia and her plucky (not to mention entirely unbelievable) 8 year old Precocious Child find another La Casa del Migrante to assist them in their quest to reach America. Said Casa is our first experience in this chapter of Cummins’ inconsistent approach to italicising the Spanish she peppers, equally inconsistently, throughout the book. In the next paragraph, “las noticias” is italicised, though nobody can understand why she didn’t just type “the news”. Throughout this chapter and indeed the whole book, Estados Unidos is never once italicised, nor correctly given the Los which should precede it. Four years of research, yet the correct grammar managed to elude her.

Later on, a kindly padre shows up for no other reason than to regurgitate a Wikipedia entry of how perilous the upcoming journey will be for them all. Cummins doesn’t even bother to give him a name, and only the most perfunctory of descriptions. He seems to be there to say “so yeah, it’s about to get like really gnarly for you migrants”.

This is, I think, is one of Cummins’ worst examples of telling rather than showing. Literally for half a page, our kindly padre details all the horror which will absolutely befall them as they set out to make it to (Los) Estados Unidos. Guess what? barely anything the kindly padre says will happen actually happens to anyone on the journey. A lot has been made of the fact that Cummins research boiled down to watching YouTube videos and reading articles linked on Facebook. When scenes like this crop up, it’s pretty difficult to refute that.

What does happen next though is there’s a long and incoherent sequence where they all jump a train. It’s so badly constructed that I can’t work out or visualise from the writing how it is any of them actually make it on the train. But they do. And smart thinking Lydia secures herself and her Precocious Child to the roof of the train with a belt. And isn’t it lucky that she does, as not three sentences later, someone falls from the train. And then his brother jumps from the train in grief. I don’t know if we’re supposed to care about them, as this is the first time we’ve been introduced to either of them, as they hurtle to their deaths. Cummins really did a bang up job of individualising the “faceless brown mass” here.

And then, Lydia is once again a fucking idiot, failing to notice danger until it’s literally in her face. Throughout the book, she makes so many baffling choices which put her in danger, yet she’s clear thinking enough to secure herself and her Precocious Child to the train with a belt. Repeatedly, she freaks herself out with how far reaching Javier’s influence could be and how she must consider everyone a potential assassin. And then, in the next breath, she’s mentally shrugging off Precocious Child basically saying “Mami, I think that’s a bad man” with “eh, it’s just some dude we crossed paths with, no biggie”. Bitch, what the fuck? And then too late, she remembers he’s possibly a sicario (italicised) so it’s best to not get up in his business. Their confrontation is so stilted and ridiculous that you will, possibly not for the first time, find yourself wishing that Lydia had died in the massacre which opens the book, so it all stopped after chapter 1. At the end of chapter 17, Lydia morosely notes that “they haven’t made any headway at all”.

And even though this is nearly the halfway point, chapter wise, MY GOD I felt the same thing. Every paragraph is like wading through treacle. The slow paced and mawkish sludge that passes for writing here saps every last ounce of tension out of the narrative. Never has running for your life been so tremendously fucking dull.

The slow paced and mawkish sludge that passes for writing here saps every last ounce of tension out of the narrative. Never has running for your life been so tremendously fucking dull

Each and every chapter of this woeful garbage fire (or, if we’re being all Jeanine Cummins about it, “lamentable fuego de basura”) is full of truly terrible prose. Every chapter has its own particular standout moment of writing that manages to be pointlessly florid in its over descriptiveness and painfully turgid at the same time. When I reviewed it over on Goodreads, I listed a few examples of these, and gave special mention to the moment I think the worst/best example of it in the book overall. None of those came from this particular chapter though so I think it’s fitting to close this review with what is, in my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of shit awful writing to grace chapter 17:

“And in the act of remembering, he experiences a strange, incongruous moment of satisfaction, a brief wash of endorphins he’s never noticed before, but that his brain has been performing all his life, a slight chemical self-congratulatory pleasure for achieving this task of almost perfect recall: Luca had seen that face before.”

American Dirt – We read it so you don’t have to.