Grapes of Wrath for our times’ froths the back cover. No, it isn’t, but it is a truly remarkable work of fiction; totally enthralling and viscerally exciting. It challenges conventional perspectives in concerning itself with the fate of the Central and South American migrant (the ‘American Dirt’ of the title), principally through the characters of a young Mexican woman,
Lydia, and her eight-year-old son Luca. They are escaping from a notoriously violent narcotics cartel which has murdered sixteen members of their family in their home in Acapulco, following a newspaper exposé of the gang by Lydia’s journalist husband. We are spared the full horrors of the actual murder spree because our concentration is immediately centred on Lydia and Luca as they hide desperately behind a half-concealing shower wall in the house while the rest of the family is being gunned down in the yard outside.
We are then frantically on the run with mother and son as the unintended survivors flee the cartel. Lydia’s plan is to find relatives living in Colorado, more than a thousand miles away. At first, she makes progress by local buses but soon realises that the narcos have
roadblocks everywhere. She and Luca are smuggled by private minibus to the airport in Mexico City, where she tries to buy tickets for herself and Luca but is refused when she is unable to produce his birth certificate. At this point, Lydia and Luca have no alternative if they are to escape; they have to become ‘illegals’. ‘All her life she’s pitied these poor people. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite… that they would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them’. Now she has no choice; she and Luca will have to flee on top of the nightmarish ‘La Bestia’: the freight trains the migrants ride across the length of the country.
The journey is a mission of terror, and tragedy awaits. Violence and kidnappings are endemic along the tracks and, apart from the criminal dangers, migrants are maimed and killed every day when they fall from the tops of the trains; only the poorest and most desperate of people attempt to travel this way. Lydia must also make contact with a coyote, one of the migrant traffickers who, for extortionate sums, undertake to smuggle migrants across the border where, in turn, they are met by border patrols, and worse, vigilantes who treat the rounding up and murder of migrants as a blood-sport. Whether both Lydia and Luca (an increasingly remarkable character in his own right) succeed against all odds in finding safety must be left for readers to discover for themselves; what is almost certain is that, by the end of the compelling narrative, few will remain unaffected by this vivid and challenging work.