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Book club questions for American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins covers all the key plot points in this controversial novel. There will be spoilers.
Good book club reads are thought-provoking and lend itself to in-depth discussions. A story about a Mexican mother and son fleeing to the United States seemed like such a good pick for book clubs. But there was more to the story about American Dirt including plenty of misleading marketing and promotion. And many in the Latino community expressed outraged over the novel’s portrayal of Latinos saying it relied on racist stereotypes. As such, the following book club questions for American Dirt will discuss both the book and the public outcry surrounding this novel.
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has a son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. And while there are cracks beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, her life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.
Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favorite books in her store. And then one day a man enters the shop to browse and comes up to the register with a few books he would like to buy—two of them her favorites. Javier is erudite. He is charming. And, unbeknownst to Lydia, he is the jefe of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. When Lydia’s husband’s tell-all profile of Javier is published, none of their lives will ever be the same.
Forced to flee, Lydia and eight-year-old Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier’s reach doesn’t extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
Book Club Questions for American Dirt
- Were you aware of the controversy surrounding American Dirt prior to reading it? If yes, did it impact the story for you in any way?
- This book is positioned as the Grapes of Wrath as our time. Why do you think there was such a huge push to proclaim this as the next great literary novel? Do you think it was warranted?
- Let’s talk about the story. It starts off right away with violence as cartel members murder Lydia’s entire family (16 in total). What did you think about this beginning?
- We learn that Lydia owns a bookstore in Acapulco and she becomes friends with a charming man named Javier who we learn is actually the head of a cartel. What did you think about this storyline of them becoming friends? Did Javier actually fall in love with Lydia? Why do you think the author thought it was important for Lydia to have a personal connection with the cartel leader that will eventually kill her family?
- Lydia’s husband is a journalist and he eventually writes about Javier’s “kingpin” role. Let’s discuss Lydia’s concern about her husband’s job prior to the tragic events.
- What did you think about the descriptions of Acapulco?
- Lydia and Luca are on the run from Javier and the cartel. They eventually go to Mexico City where they stay with a friend of her husband. But his religious wife is not comfortable with them staying there. Let’s talk about that section.
- What would you have done if you were Lydia?
- The journey is harrowing and terrifying. Along the way they meet two sisters Rebeca and Soledad who left Honduras to run away from violence. Wha did you think about the two sisters and their relationship with Luca and Lydia?
- Luca is very hyper-intelligent and obsessed with geography and maps. He’s eight but seems so much older. Let’s talk how Luca and his knowledge about maps.
- We eventually learn that after the article about Javier was published, his daughter became so horrified that she committed suicide. This is why Javier murdered Lydia’s family. But it’s unclear if he truly wanted Lydia dead or not. What are your thoughts on that?
- This horrifying journey is non-stop and the violence is told in extreme detail with some even calling the story “torture porn.” What are you thoughts on this? Do you think the descriptions were too much or did it fit with the story?
- In the end, Lydia, Luca, Rebeca and Soledad make it to the U.S. Let’s talk about the ending. How do you think life will be like for them in the U.S.?
- Let’s take a closer look at Oprah’s original quote for this story: “American Dirt just gutted me, and I didn’t just read this book―I inhabited it….Everything about this book was so extraordinary. It’s suspenseful, the language is beautiful, and the story really opened my heart. I highly recommend it, and you will not want to put it down. It is just a magnificent novel.” Do you agree with what she said here? Why or why not?
- Now let’s all talk about our thoughts on the controversy and the criticisms that this book relies on racist stereotypes.
- In the author’s note, Cummins writes: “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” She now says she used “clumsy” wording. What do you feel that the author should have done differently?
What to Read Next
Hope you enjoyed book club questions for American Dirt. Here are some more book recommendations:
Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester
Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester is an International Latino Book Award Winner.
The first time Isabel meets her father-in-law, Omar, he’s already dead—an apparition appearing uninvited on her wedding day. Her husband, Martin, still unforgiving for having been abandoned by his father years ago, confesses that he never knew the old man had died. So Omar asks Isabel for the impossible: persuade Omar’s family—especially his wife, Elda—to let him redeem himself.
Isabel and Martin settle into married life in a Texas border town, and Omar returns each year on the celebratory Day of the Dead. Every year Isabel listens, but to the aggrieved Martin and Elda, Omar’s spirit remains invisible. Through his visits, Isabel gains insight into not just the truth about his disappearance and her husband’s childhood but also the ways grief can eat away at love. When Martin’s teenage nephew crosses the Mexican border and takes refuge in Isabel and Martin’s home, questions about past and future homes, borders, and belonging arise that may finally lead to forgiveness—and alter all their lives forever.
You can order the book on Amazon here.
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
The Air You Breathe is an engrossing tale of two friends in 1930s Brazil brought together by circumstance and music.
Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music.
One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes–and haunt their memories.
Traveling from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship–its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses–and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.