There is an unfortunate bandwagon effect in regards to this book, where people are dog-piling onto the book, and the author personally, because some people told them that if they dare to read it, they will have their “woke” credentials revoked.
The book was brilliantly written, and gives us a look into the lives and experiences of a people whose existence is mostly in the shadows, and I applaud Ms. Jeanine Cummins for taking on this difficult and worthwhile subject. It may well be that the author didn’t get a hundred percent of the facts straight, and perhaps some of the subtleties of Spanish language may be a little off, but remember, this is a work of fiction. It’s not a documentary. She is allowed to take some liberties.
Criticism is also being levied about her fat paycheck, but also keep in mind this is a work that the author spent years developing, and she has certainly earned her pay. It is not a question of whether there are more worthy authors, or other authors whose work has not yet seen the spotlight. That will always be the case in any artistic endeavor. This reminds me of sitting at a reading once in the 1980s in Albuquerque, where author John Nichols was reading from his book The Milagro Beanfield War, which had just been made into a movie. The book, and the movie, were both sympathetic and beautifully written, and presented a look into a fictional small New Mexico farming community. The audience was made up of mostly young white hippies, and one raised her hand and with an earnest look on her face, asked the author “How can you justify taking a big advance and movie money by writing about poor Hispanic people?” I was embarrassed to even be in her presence after she asked that ridiculous question. Nichols patiently answered the question very well, explaining again, as is also the case with Ms. Cummins, that an author spends hundreds, and often even thousands of hours over the course of several years researching and writing a novel, and what may seem like a big payoff, when amortized over the time spent in development, is not quite nearly as handsome a payoff as some people make it out to be.
The book was called “A Grapes of Wrath for our time” by one reviewer, and I agree. The level of brilliance in American Dirt compares to Steinbeck, so let’s look at Steinbeck. John Steinbeck was a white man who grew up in a modest middle class home, who dared to imagine to write about the experiences of other people. In his book Tortilla Flat, he imagined a group of poor people from mostly Mexican and Indian descent, living their lives in central California after World War One. Some critics did levy some of the same criticism against Tortilla Flat as they do today against American Dirt, yet we do accept Tortilla Flat, and indeed all of Steinbeck’s work, as part of the canon of great American literature. Should he not have written it? Of course he should have. We would be poorer for it had he not.
Clint Eastwood’s depiction of the quintessential grumpy old white guy in the wonderful drama Gran Torino also was well-received and relayed a sympathetic depiction of the Hmong community in the United States in this touching story about how his character, Walt Kowalski, overcomes his racist tendencies. Although there was some criticism the movie was widely praised by both Asians, and Old White Men alike. My point is, the criticism being heaped on Ms. Cummins is uncalled for when other artists have presented their works under similar circumstances without the same level of vitriol. What has changed, other than an overcorrecting swing to an extreme level of absolutism mired in political correctness which negates the true mission of the artist?
It is a sad day for literature when novelists are no longer allowed to write about and imagine experiences other than their own. That is literally the definition of what a novelist does. I was considering writing a novel myself, but I suppose now, it will have to be a story in which all the characters are old white men who mow their lawns, live in middle-class homes in the Midwest, drive late-model Chevrolets, drink lager beer and occasionally yell at rowdy teenagers. It will be a very boring book.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.