"American Dirt" - an excerpt

Chris Schluep on January 16, 2020


The first big book event of the year is about to happen. Next Tuesday, American Dirt will be published.

Jeanine Cummins has written several other novels, but it's safe to say they didn't come with the sort of anticipation that this one has been gathering. Writers from all corners have supplied blurbs: Stephen King, John Grisham, Ann Patchett, Kristin Hannah, Sandra Cisneros—the list goes on and on.

Here at Amazon, we selected it as our January spotlight pick for the Best Books of the Month.

Here is part of what I wrote in my review:

Lydia Quixano Pérez runs a bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico, where she lives with her husband, Sebastián, who is a journalist, and their son, Luca. When a man starts visiting her store, buying books and striking up a friendship, she has no idea initially that he will be responsible for turning her life upside down. But Lydia and Luca will have to flee Acapulco, setting them on a journey they will share with countless other Central and South Americans-turned migrants.... American Dirt is a novel of crisp writing, urgent pacing, and remarkable empathy. It deserves the attention of a large audience. —Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review

And now we're lucky enough to be able to provide an excerpt from the book. In this chapter, Lydia and her son, Luca, are attempting for the first time to jump on the train (aka la bestia) that will take them north. As you can imagine, it's a very dramatic and harrowing moment.

Read on for an excerpt from American Dirt:

The sun feels hotter when they’re sitting still, and Lydia notices that her arms are as tan as childhood. Luca, too, is a shade browner than usual, and there are dots of perspiration all along his hairline beneath Sebastián’s cap. But the wait beneath that sapping sun is almost too brief, Lydia thinks. She could’ve used more time to talk herself into this. It’s not even two hours before the distant rumble of the train grows into their consciousness and all four of them rise without speaking and begin to ready themselves. In truth, Lydia’s in no way convinced that they’re actually going to go through with it. She hopes they do because they need to be on that train. And she hopes they don’t, because she doesn’t want to die. She doesn’t want Luca to die. She feels as if she’s outside her own body, listening to that train approach, moving her backpack to the other side of the roadway, prompting Luca along in front of her. She packs their canteen into the front pocket of her backpack and zips it up. Even if she felt confident that she could jump onto a moving train, how can she ask her son to do this crazy thing? Her shoulders feel loose, her legs erratic beneath her. Adrenaline sluices all through her jittery body.

Beside her, Luca follows a crack in the asphalt beneath his sneakers. He keeps his eyes and thoughts fixed on the minutiae. He leaves it to Mami to take in the broad sweep of the task at hand: the dun-colored grasses and scrubby trees crowding the embankment, the dome of blue overhead, the overpass and train tracks intersecting like a cross. The wind fuzzes through Luca’s hair as the noise of the train grows closer, the booming clatter and reverberation of those monster wheels hauling themselves along the metal of the track—the very loudness of that noise seems designed as a warning that enters through your ears but lodges in your sternum: stay away, stay away, stay away, don’t be crazy, don’t be crazy, don’t be crazy. Luca holds his backpack by the top handle, low in front of him with both hands. There’s one kid at school who’s a daredevil. Her name is Pilar, and she’s always doing crazy stunts. She leaps from the very top of the jungle gym. She flies from the highest arc of the swing. Once, she climbed a tree beside the school gate and shimmied out on an upper limb, from where she climbed onto the roof of the school building. She did cartwheels up there until the principal called her abuela to come talk her down. But not even Pilar would jump onto a moving train from an overpass, Luca thinks. Pilar would never, in a million years, believe steady, rule-following Luca capable of participating in such madness. He watches the nose of the train approach and disappear beneath the southern edge of the roadway. He turns then, and sees it emerge from beneath his feet. Mami peers over the edge of the low guardrail just as the train pulls itself into view.

“It’s good.” Rebeca smiles at them. “Nice and slow.”

“Ready?” Soledad says.

Her little sister nods. Lydia’s face is grim while she watches the girls.

Luca studies the stretch of the train and sees a few migrants clustered near the tail end, on the last five or six cars. One is standing, silhouetting his body into an X, and he waves at them. Luca waves back.

“Let’s go,” Soledad says.

She and her sister line up beside each other, smack in the center of the track. They squat, holding their packs beneath them, and wait for the right car. They look for one that’s flat on top. One that has the kind of grating you can walk on, sit on, grab onto. The first half of the train is all rounded tanker cars, so they wait. And then finally, quite slowly, Soledad tosses her pack and then follows it. With one graceful, chaotic, suicidal lurch, she moves her body from the fixed to the moving, she drops—Lydia can’t tell how far it is—six feet? ten?—and then the girl is instantly receding, her form growing smaller as she moves away with the train.

“Come on!” she shouts back to her sister. “Now!”

And then Rebeca, too, is gone, and Lydia realizes how quickly this has to happen, that they have no time to weigh their options, no time to consider best practices. She rejects the awareness that all her life she’s been afraid she would jump accidentally, like that girl from her favorite novel, from cliffs, from balconies, from bridges. But now she knows, with 100 percent certainty, she knows she would never have jumped, that the fear has always been an elaborate trick of her mind. Her heels are glued to the roadway. A week ago she’d have screamed at Luca to get back from there. She’d have told him not to stand so close to the edge. She’d have reached out and grabbed his arm to convince herself that he was safe, that he would stay put. Now she has to launch her child onto this moving train beneath them. The small cluster of migrants on the last few cars is approaching. They duck low to pass beneath the roadway and then, when they emerge on the other side, they’re facing Lydia, their arms open wide, they gesture at her to toss the backpacks. She tosses the backpacks. And then she grabs Luca by his two shoulders, stands behind him.

“Step over,” she instructs him.

Luca steps over without hesitation or objection. His heels are on the roadway. The toes of his little blue sneakers stick out into the air as the train passes beneath them. Luca hums to cover the dreadful noise of the train.

“Squat low,” she tells him. “Just like the girls did.”

He squats low. If he jumps from this place and dies, it will be because he did exactly what Lydia told him to do. She feels as though she’s watching herself in a nightmare doing a monstrous thing that makes her panic. A thing, thank God, that she would never do in real life. And then just as she’s about to reel him in, to crush his small head against her chest, to wrap him in her arms and weep with relief that she wakened in time, she hears it. With conviction, Sebastián’s voice, cutting through all the external and internal noise.

The voice, then, when she opens her mouth and screams into Luca’s ear, is almost not her own. “Go, Luca! Jump!”

Luca jumps. And every molecule in Lydia’s body jumps with him. She sees him, the tight tuck of him, how small he is, how absurdly brave he is, his muscles and bones, his skin and hair, his thoughts and words and ideas, the very bigness of his soul, she sees all of him in the moment when his body leaves the safety of the overpass and flies, just momentarily, upward because of the effort of his exertion, until gravity catches him and he descends toward the top of La Bestia. Lydia watches him drop, her eyes so big with fear they’ve almost left her body. And then he lands like a cat on all fours, and the velocity of his leap clashes with the velocity of the train, and he topples and rolls, and one leg splays toward the edge of the train, pulling his weight with it, and Lydia tries to scream his name, but her voice has snagged and gone, and then one of the migrant men catches him. One big, rough hand on Luca’s arm, the other on the seat of his pants. And Luca, caught, safe in the strong arms of this train-top stranger, lifts his moving face to seek her. His eyes catch her eyes.

“I did it, Mami!” he screams. “Mami! Jump!”

Without a thought in her head except Luca, she jumps.

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