American Dirt

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2020 (read Apr. 2020)

So I know this book has had its fair share of good and bad reviews. We threw this one on our book club list right after it came out because the synopsis sounded so compelling and it wasn’t until later that I heard about some of the criticisms surrounding the book. Between then and now I forgot completely everything I’d read about the book and ended up going into it completely blind. For some reason I thought this was a book about adjusting to life in America after immigration – that is clearly not the case.

American Dirt tells the story of mother and son, Lydia and Luca, as they are forced to flee across their home country of Mexico to escape the violence of the big drug cartel in Acapulco, Los Jardinos. They end up joining the many migrants who make the epic journey across Central America in the hopes of finding sanctuary on the other side of the American border.

I can see why the book is popular – it’s been compared to a modern day Grapes of Wrath and deals with a topic close to the heart of all Americans – not just those in the United States who’ve taken ownership over the term. The catch is that the book is written by a white American woman with no first hand experience of what it means to be a migrant.

Honestly, I think that even 5 years ago few people would have raised a flag about the author. Unfortunately most mass consumed literature is written by white people, but I think there has been a real shift in recent years to highlight other authors and other stories – that representation matters and that’s there’s so much value to be gained from Own Voices writers. Obviously there’s a whole genre of historical fiction where this is largely impossible and I don’t think that we shouldn’t write about that which interests and inspires us. But it’s definitely a sensitive topic and I understand why the book has been criticized for this fact.

I’d like to try and explore both sides of this issue in my review. I cannot deny that I loved this book. I am the exact intended audience. A white woman that cares about social justice but is woefully ill-informed about the migration crises south of the American border. Whether the author correctly captured the migrant experience or not, I found this book incredibly eye-opening and though it describes something I knew was happening, it really drove home the plight of migrants. I think it will likely draw attention to this injustice and hopefully inspire people to become better informed and take action on it.

That said, as a reader, I still have a responsibility to acknowledge where this account may have its shortcomings. For this I look largely to the internet, from people who have had first hand experience of migrating to America. American Dirt has a very dark plot and I found the characters had almost no positive experiences. I’m sure this is largely the case for a lot of migrants, but I also wonder if in an effort to shock and engage – Cummins took every traumatic experience she’d ever heard of and combined it all in to one book. I did worry that she was stealing from the migrant experience to create an edge of your seat social justice thriller. While this trauma is likely all based in reality, its not meant for entertainment. I thought Cummins did maintain a good hold on this balance for most of the novel, but veered a bit to the extreme towards the end. Lydia’s interaction with Javier at the end of the book and what happened to Beto really pushed it over the edge for me into the use of someone else’s trauma for the sake of a dramatic climax.

The other area where I questioned Cummins authenticity on the subject was in her portrayal of America. I read in other reviews that her rudimentary use of Spanish in the novel is belittling and that she was ignorant to large parts of Mexican culture. I’ve seen it criticized that Lydia seemed way too shocked about the things that happened in her own country, things that any other Mexican would not find shocking but be well aware of. What I did note was the consistent portrayal of America as the ultimate salvation. It took on a bit of a mythos among the characters, though I think we all know America is still hugely flawed. Cummins did capture this somewhat better towards the end with the introduction of Marisol and other deportees. but I think there needs to be some sense of reality that even people fleeing to America recognize its shortcomings.

So the book is not without flaws. To further educate myself, I did some research on other existing literature about the experiences presented in this book that are actually based on first hand knowledge. I decided to add the following books to my TBR to hopefully get a broader and more accurate perspective of the issue: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and the Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez, which was actually already on my TBR.

Moving on to what I liked about the book. I can’t deny I liked the writing. I connected with these characters. Not because I pitied them, but because they had such rich and emotive back stories. I liked the depth that Cummins brought to Lydia’s character and her relationship with Javier, Rebeca’s depiction of her mystical village in the cloud forest, Soledad’s quiet and reverent love for her sister and father, and the relationship that developed between Lydia and Luca, born of the grief they shared. I liked the exploration of how the immediate need to survive can overpower trauma and the fear that arises out of having no one you can trust – when anyone could be a potential informant. How violence can make you doubt even the authenticity of a 10 year old boy and how even in periods of extreme stress, people are still willing to sacrifice anything to help someone else in need.

Once I started this book, I struggled to put it down. I was on edge the entire time I was reading it and even though this will never make the reader understand how it feels to be in the characters situation first hand, I really felt the sense of urgency, the fear, and the unknown plaguing these characters throughout the course of the book. I don’t regret reading it, in fact I am definitely glad that I did. I lament that Latinx writers are not getting the same exposure as Cummins did, but I am glad to have been exposed to this story. I will try and do my best to pick up some other books on the subject with authors more closely connected to their subject matter. Looking forward to discussing this one at book club!

February Summary

You wouldn’t think that 3 days would make that much of a difference, but only having 28 days in February always makes the month go by so quickly!

I’m really happy about the 3 books I challenged myself to read in February as part of my goal to read to 3 books about Canada. I think it would have taken me a while to get to any of these books if I hadn’t publicly challenged myself to do so. To be honest, I even debating dropping the last one from the list and just reading 2, but I’m glad I pushed myself to read all 3 because I really liked them all! It’s only been 2 months, but actually taking the time to do some research and thoughtfully pick my challenges has been paying off with some quality literature.

Anyways, let’s jump right in with my February Summary:

Books read: 9
Pages read: 3,276
Main genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Favourite book: Saga, Volume 8

February started off with a stream of half-star reads. I don’t like giving half star ratings, but it’s a fine line between 3 stars and 4 stars and sometimes you just need to compromise. So I gave my first 3 reads of the month all 3.5 stars.

I started off with Tiger Lily, which is a re-telling of Peter Pan from Tinkerbell’s perspective, featuring Tiger Lily as the main protagonist. I thought this book was actually fantastically written, Jodi-Lynn Anderson’s writing is very beautiful and lyrical, but I struggled to get into the story, hence the 3.5 star rating. I already bought a copy of Anderson’s latest novel, Midnight at the Electric, and I’m excited to check out some more of her writing.

Next I read an advanced reader copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest book, Then She Was Gone, that I got from Netgalley. I’ve been dying to read some of Jewell’s stuff, so I was happy to give this one a try. I liked it in that it was formatted quick differently from any other mystery/thriller that I’ve read, but it was a little bit predictable in parts and I also found it extremely disturbing. However, like Tiger Lily, I’m intrigued to try some more of Jewell’s work next time I’m in the mood for another mystery!

The last of the 3.5 star reads was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have to admit, I really didn’t want to read this one. It sounded a lot like The Rosie Project to me, which I didn’t like, but my book club picked it for our February read and I’ve been seeing a lot of good press about it, so what could I do? This was probably my least favourite of the 3. I found it kind of boring, but I do think it was a well written book (definitely better than The Rosie Project) and I appreciate what the author was trying to do with this novel.

As you can see, I was kind of putting off tackling any of my Canadian reads for my Monthly Challenge, so after I finished Eleanor I decided to tackle The Boat People and The Break. Both of these books were fantastic! I feel like it took me forever to get through The Boat People, but it was a fascinating read about immigration and morality and it really made me think. In contrast, The Break is a family drama about a Métis family and all the hurts and grievances they’ve weathered together over the years. It was a inter-generational read that was just so well written and had so much depth, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Actually, in between those 2 books I snuck in a quick reading of the latest Saga volume, which came out at the end of December. I slowly worked my way through the first 7 volumes of Saga last year, and while I really liked them all, this one affected me more than the rest. I think Brian K. Vaughan actually went a little more heavy-handed than usual on the social commentary in this one. At first I thought it was a bit much, but I guess I was wrong because this volume just stands out more than any of the others for me and it was pure enjoyment from start to finish. Vaughan tackles abortion, miscarriage, and grief in this volume and it really packed a punch, especially at the very end when parts of the cast are finally re-united.

I was avoiding starting the final book in my February Challenge all month, mostly due to length, so I fit in a quick read of The Lightning Thief. This is the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and I’ve been wanting to read this for ages because everyone seems obsessed with everything Rick Riordan writes! This was another book that was just a lot of fun. The writing was hilarious and there was so much action packed into this middle grade book! Percy was witty and I loved his sidekicks, Annabeth and Grover. I would like to read more of these, but I suspect it may take my a while to get to them, but they’re definitely good if you’re looking for a laugh.

The final book in my Monthly Challenge was The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston. I admit, I did not want to read this one, but like I said, I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it. I had a lot to say about this one that I don’t want to get into again, so I’ll just say that it’s historical fiction about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, who helped usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. Check out my full length review for more details. This book was meaningful to me as a Newfoundlander and I’m really proud that I finally read it. I gave it 4 stars.

And the last read I squeezed into February was The Power. I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out at the end of last year since it’s been called the new ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (along with Red Clocks). It’s dystopian science fiction where women develop the ability to produce electricity and use it through their hands. The book has such a great premise, but I was really disappointed with the author’s follow-through on the premise; I thought the book lacked focus and was poorly executed. It still make me think a lot though, so I gave it another 3.5 stars.

The Boat People

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Sharon Bala
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Oh my goodness, I feel like this book took forever to finish! Between going on a ski trip last weekend and the Olympics stealing all of my attention, it took me a bit longer than anticipated to get through The Boat People. But I finally finished!

This was the first book of my February Reading Challenge and I am a little concerned I might not fit them all in this month because I am just completely obsessed with the Olympics! This month I challenged myself to read 3 books about Canada and this was my pick from the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist.

The Boat People is written by Sharon Bala, who fascinatingly was born in Dubai, raised in Ontario, and currently lives in Newfoundland, and it’s about a ship full of refugees from Sri Lanka who landed on Vancouver’s shores in 2010. It was a bit of a thrill to read a book about the place where I currently live, as I don’t read that much Canadian literature, and this was a fascinating bit of history about an event I knew shockingly nothing about.

Sri Lanka has been torn apart by war for decades, driving many people to desperation to escape the violence in any way they can. These 492 Sri Lankan’s board a cargo ship bound for Canada in an effort to seek out a better life. Fortunately everyone survives the journey and they are thrilled when they first see the coast of Vancouver Island, but the welcome party is cut short when they are promptly separated and detained in two prisons while the government fumbles to try and decide what to do about them.

I knew very little about the process for migrants who show up un-announced at the border and this was very eye-opening. Refugees must first seek permission to request asylum and then go through admissibility hearings for their request to be granted. In this case, the government was worried about terrorists being on board and wanted to delay the process as much as possible to assuage the public’s fears. The adjudicators had very little information to go on outside of the refugee’s testimony and because the government wanted to delay the process to dissuade copycat voyages, the refugees were forced to remain in these detainment prisons for months while their hearings were repeatedly denied and postponed.

I did struggle a bit with this book as there’s a lot of legalese in it, a lot of (slightly confusing) Sri Lankan history, and a lot of character names and stories that I struggled to keep straight, but I really liked how Bala wrote this book and she was not shy in tackling a lot of different issues.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Mahindan, a single father who made the journey from Sri Lanka with his 6-year old son Sellian; Priya, an articling student (of Sri Lankan heritage) who’s firm takes on 5 refugee cases pro bono and has her help out on the cases; and Grace, an adjudicator (of japanese heritage) who is assigned by the xenophobic Minister of Immigration to adjudicate the detainment hearings.

This is a morally-gray book and I appreciated Bala for not making this a straight-forward morality tale. She tackles so many issues in this book; the xenophobia of the Canadian public, the refugee diaspora, the immigration process, Canada’s past failings, the importance of history and remembrance, reconciliation, culture shock, and the list goes on.

The novel first presents us with the refugees, ecstatic to arrive on Canada’s shores, and the brutality of their arrival and immediate imprisonment. In my opinion, you can’t help but empathize with them and think the government harsh. But then Bala gets into the morally gray areas of war and how good and innocent people can be forced and coerced into participating in what western countries view as terrorist organizations.

Are we right to studiously evaluate every refugee who comes into Canada for terrorist affiliation? I think yes, but do we need to steal their humanity from them in the process? No. Do we have the right to deport people when deportation will mean certain torture and death? People may be split on that opinion, but it’s a question that requires empathy and understanding that we will never have by “othering” people and fearing them.

Innocent people are forced to do bad things in wartime, but how to we evaluate those acts and decide if the intent was forced or malicious? What’s direct involvement in acts of “terrorism” and what’s proximate? These are impossible questions to answer and as much as I often disliked Grace’s line of thinking, I could appreciate the pressure that was put on her in these quasi-legal proceedings. All she has to go on is the migrant’s story and how is she to know what is truth? That said, she was an adjudicator appointed by the government in power, which begs the question if she should have the power to make those decisions at all.

However, I liked the contrast of Grace’s story and how Bala demonstrates how cyclical history can be. Grace is the grand-daughter of Japanese immigrants and takes a hard line on border safety and who should be permitted to enter Canada. She is determined to safeguard her daughters freedom to move around without fear, while at the same time struggling with her mother’s declining health. Her mother, Kumi, has Alzheimer’s and is slowly regressing into the past. Her parents had been interned during WWII and lost everything. They never spoke up about the injustice and kept their heads down to give their children a chance to become “true” Canadians. However, now she worries that the apathy of her parents has been passed down to her daughter and grandchildren and that Grace has forgotten the injustices of the past, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.

I thought it was an interesting theme on how people who were once oppressed and othered can learn to be oppressors themselves. And on how important reconciliation is, not just for righting our wrongs, but for protecting against repeating them, to keep fresh an empathy for others.

So while I did feel like it took me forever to get through this book, it was worth it. The Boat People made me think a lot and while it definitely was more ‘liberal-leaning’, it wasn’t a straight forward good vs evil narrative. It’s complex, gritty, and heartbreaking. A fabulous and meaningful debut for a Canadian author.

February Reading Challenge

January’s reading challenge was a roaring success, so I’m excited to set a new challenge for February. I loved all 3 of the books I read in January and hopefully I can replicate it again this month. You can see my January Summary here.

I was really torn between two challenge ideas for February. I have a pile of fantasy novels piling up on my shelf, so I was tempted to read 3 of them for February, but I decided to actually challenge myself and get a little bit more specific with some books I’ll be less likely to read anyways. That said, I may set a genre challenge every third month or so to help work my way through my TBR and try and keep my challenges from being too heavy or onerous.

So without further ado, my reading challenge for February is:

Read 3 books about Canada

It’s pretty embarrassing how few Canadian novels I’ve actually read and with CBC posting the 2018 shortlist for Canada Reads, I was inspired to try and knock back a few of my Canadian authors! My 3 picks for February are:

  1. The Boat People by Sharon Bala
  2. The Break by Katherena Vermette
  3. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

I’ve been anxiously waiting for CBC to drop the 2018 shortlist for Canada Reads and I decided to pick one of the 5 contenders for my reading challenge. The Boat People is based on the true story of a cargo ship of refugees from Sri Lanka that landed on Canada’s shores in 2010. However, instead of finding sanctuary all 500 of the refugees were thrown into a detention centre. The story is told through several different perspectives of both the refugees and people involved in the case. That’s all I really know about it and I’ve decided to read the book before I do any further research. So I guess I’m not done with immigration stories yet, but I didn’t read any books about refugees last month, so it’ll be interesting to get this perspective.

I’m trying to get a diverse selection of books, so I like that The Boat People is written by a woman of colour and that it features Vancouver a little bit (my current home). However, I literally just looked up the author to learn a little bit more about her and I was actually ecstatic to discover that while she was born in Dubai and grew up in Ontario, she currently calls St. John’s home (my hometown!!).

My second pick, The Break, was recommended to me by a co-worker and then I started seeing it everywhere and have only heard good things about it. It’s about a Métis woman in Manitoba who potentially witnesses a crime on the break outside her house. I don’t know a whole lot about the plot, but the book synopsis informs me that it’s a inter-generational saga that features the narratives of all the people who get tied up in the case. I’ve been loving family dramas lately, so I’m excited to dive into this one. The Break is also written by a woman of Métis decent, so I was inspired to give this in a read in order to support more first nations writers. Side note: The Marrow Thieves has also made the 2018 shortlist and sounds fascinating, so I’m hoping to find time to read this one in the near future as well.

Finally, I wanted to read something about Newfoundland since it is my homeland and I have a deep love for the island, even though I’ve been loving living in Vancouver for the last 4 years. There is a surprisingly amount of literature about Newfoundland, but it was hard to find one that was super appealing. I decided on A Colony of Unrequited Dreams, which is historical fiction about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier when we joined confederation in 1949.

I read Greg Malone’s Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders a few years ago, which is an exposé about how Newfoundland came to join Canada. I found it fascinating and wrote a whole blog post on it here, so I’ve decided to expand my knowledge and give this book a try. I’m a little nervous about it though because my copy is 600 pages of tiny font. Usually book length doesn’t bother me, but I’m worried this one won’t be an easy read, so we’ll see how I do.

Anyways, wish me luck and I’ll check back in in a month!

American Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Genres: Young Adult, Magical Realism
Read: Jan. 2018

Ibi Zoboi! Way to rip my heart out and stomp on it! What even? I was not expecting this.

This was the last book in my January Challenge to read 3 books about immigration. I read Girl in Translation and Pachinko earlier this month and loved both of them. American Street was a whole different kind of story, quite unlike either of the others. It was probably my least favourite of the 3 books, but still really good.

Fabiola Toussaint was born in America, but raised in Haiti because her mother didn’t have citizenship. Her Aunt Jo and her 3 cousins, Chantal, Pri, and Donna all live in Detroit and regularly send money back to Haiti to help out Fabiola and her mother. When Fab is entering her junior year of high school, they send enough money for her and her mother to finally move to America for good. Fab has American citizenship, but her mother has to get all the necessary visas to “visit” America. Unfortunately, when they enter America, Fab’s mother is detained at the border and she is forced to go on to Detroit without her.

Her aunt and cousins live at the corner of American Street and Joy Road. Fab has been desperate to come to America to live in the land of the free, but she doesn’t feel very free with her mother detained in an immigration prison in New Jersey and navigating her cousins’ world is scary and overwhelming. Her cousins are notorious at school and a little rough around the edges. Fabiola is pulled into their world and discovers the dark underside of what it costs to chase after the american dream.

Like I said, this was really different from any of the other immigration books I’ve read this year. I think Zoboi really captures Fab’s Haitian spirit and what it’s like growing up black in Detroit. She intertwines some cultural elements, like Haitian vodou, which is very much a spiritual thing for Fab, but is usually interpreted more like witchcraft in modern society. She weaves in some magical realism which surprised me and first, but I thought really worked with the story.

Voice was key for me in this novel. I’m a privileged white girl who grew up in a predominantly white town, so I definitely can’t relate to Fabiola or her cousins, yet their voices rang so true. I had no trouble believing in Zoboi’s characters. Fab’s uneasiness when she first arrives at her aunt’s house; Chantal’s desire to chase education but her reluctance to leave her family; Donna’s inability to say ‘enough is enough’; and Pri’s fierce and protective love for her sisters. My only complaint would be that Zoboi didn’t actually go deep enough into each of these characters. She formulated some really excellent characters, I just wanted more of them.

I really wasn’t anticipating where the plot of this story went. I thought it was mostly going to be about Fab trying to re-unite with her mom. While this was definitely an underlying conflict throughout the entire novel, Zoboi tackled a lot of other issues in this story. Although I would have liked to have heard her mother’s story as well and learn about what it’s actually like to be detained. I never really knew where the story was going and felt quite out of my depth with some of the content, much as I imagine Fabiola must have felt arriving in Detroit and trying to fit in with girls attacking each other over boyfriends and drugs passing hands on the sly. But Zoboi was quite unflinching in her delivery. I really did not see the end coming in this book and parts of it and brutal.

So like I said, probably my least favourite of the 3 books that I read, but actually very complimentary because this offered a totally different perspective than the other two. The characters in Girl in Translation and Pachinko are very meek and I loved Fabiola’s strength in this novel. She makes some pretty big mistakes, but she’s not afraid to chase after what she wants and she is very brave and courageous. Her culture shock was quite different and I liked getting another perspective. She could have let herself be pushed around, but she wouldn’t stand for it and decided to make her own place. Family is a central theme to this novel and I enjoyed the messiness that was the Francois sisters and Fabiola’s relationships with them.

Way to go Zoboi, this is a great debut novel!