Barbed wire, taut across handmade tiles of fanciful bluebirds in flight—such is the jacket art for American Dirt (2020) by Jeanine Cummins, its title referenced toward the end of this novel. Guatemalan migrant Soledad, fifteen years old, spits through the fence at the Nogales border and leaves some of herself in the American dirt, so desperate she is to cross over, her beauty a magnet for sexual assaults.

The author succeeds in portraying other fleshed-out migrants fleeing death-wielding cartels. Among them is Lydia, the young mother of Luca, having escaped the slaughter of her entire family at her niece’s fifteenth birthday party in Acapulco. Grief emboldens Lydia to protect her eight-year-old and flee to Tucson, not without extreme hardships and scrapes with death. However hard the migrants seek to escape, the cartels’ Intel keeps their victims within the cross-hairs of their AK47s.

Cummins’s five years of research and numerous trips to the United States-Mexican border crossings and beyond, offer an immediacy to this hostile terrain: its sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and touch wheedle themselves within readers’ imaginations and compel interest for yet another chapter.

Only Cummins’s artistry with words prevents this novel from becoming a horror binge. Much she leaves out, prompting her readers’ deeper engagement.

What surfaces from the experience of reading American Dirt remains unsettling. There seems no political/religious will to dismantle the drug cartels because of their octopus-like monitoring, because of lucrative payments to their spies, and because of their victims gunned down on the streets, overcrowding morgues. Monstrous greed sparks this human tragedy as migrants continue fleeing for their lives. Still they come.

America Dirt speaks to the present impasse at our Southern border.