American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Rating:           9.5

General Rating: This novel looks inside the mind of an illegal immigrant. Want to know why they risk their lives to come to America? Read this. Seldom does a book impact me like American Dirt.

Skip factor:  2%. I hate admitting this. I skipped paragraphs when I became so invested in the characters’ situations that I felt utter desperation and had to move on. Simply, I paged forward to find the outcome, many times returning to read Cummins’ great writing.  

Who should read: Those who long to understand why some risk their lives to cross the border, compassionate people, or readers who enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath.

Disclaimer: There has been disparaging of this fictional story for several reasons. (I learned this from my wonderful Farmhouse Book Club friends.) I did not read a single word of the controversy before finishing the book or writing my review.

Summary: Lydia and Luca are from a middle-class family, and they live in Acapulco. Lydia, the wife, and Luca, the son, are the immediate family of journalist Sebastian Perez. Lydia owns a book store, and Luca attends private school.

The story opens dramatically with a devastating shooting/killing of Sebastian and fifteen other family members. By chance, Lydia and Luca are able to hide until the cartel members leave, and their journey begins.

This book is about that journey.  

Characters:  Although the novel portrays the life of fictional characters, the author has skillfully created people who seem so real you feel you know them and are walking, step-by-step, beside them as they flee for their lives.

Readers will love the boys, Luca & Beto, the teenage girls, Soledad and Rebeka, and Lydia, the young mother, along with interesting minor characters introduced along the way.

Because the characters seemed lifelike, I googled the author and wasn’t surprised to see she had done extensive research. To read about people/organizations who truly do risk their lives to help immigrants, check out her site at https://www.jeaninecummins.com/how-to-helppre/

Storyline: Cummins captures your attention in the opening chapter and holds it throughout the book. You can’t let go. You must find out if Lydia and Luca survive.

This novel is entirely about Lydia and Luca’s journey, the people they meet, the atrocities they see, and the pain they experience. With the cartel on their heels, Lydia is forced to ferry her son as far from Acapulco as she can manage. She heads toward el Norte and this consumes the storyline.

Writing:  

Cummins’s tremendous writing draws readers into the journey. You are alongside them jumping trains, limping from twisted ankles, traipsing through the cold black nights or scorching afternoons. She writes so eloquently I couldn’t put it down. You hold your breath at times. Her vivid descriptions of situations and settings and the migrants’ inner feelings reel you in and you become completely invested in not only the two main characters, but several of the people they meet along the way.

Read this author again?  Yes, no question. I loved the writing.

Read on!

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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, Dream Wide Awake, and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a sixth-sense paranormal element, and Friends Who Move Couches, women’s fiction. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, TwitterFacebookGoodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.

Educated by Tara Westover

Name:      Educated
Author:    Tara Westover
Rating:     4.5    This book challenged me. Yet, once I got past the Westover’s junkyard and herbal world, I was mesmerized by Tara’s journey.

Skip factor: 8%    At around 30% I called a friend and asked if the story improved. I did not like the junkyard or herbal lore at all. However, I hung in there and once I worked through that beginning section, I couldn’t put it down.

Who should read? Deep-thinkers, people inspired by education, hard-workers who themselves have risen out of poverty, and lovers of the English language—young and old.

Summary: This is the memoir of Tara Westover, the seventh and youngest child of Val and LaRee Westover. She was born in her childhood home which sat on the side of a mountain in Provo, Utah. The month of her birth was September of 1986, but the actual date is unknown. Her birth was unrecorded, as were most of her sibling’s births. She grew up in a Mormon family littered with racism and anti-Semitism. She worked in her father’s junkyard for much of her youth and often encountered dangerous, life-threatening tasks at his direction. She had no formal education until she was seventeen years old and received no home-schooling from her family. Her mother was well-versed in and revered for her herbal remedies and mid-wife expertise. Her father, along with her older brother Shawn, suffered mental illness and Tara and her siblings were often abused.

This is the story of a young girl’s metamorphosis, her rise from the ashes of her parent’s scrapheap despite all odds. Her father believed the end of the world was imminent and the government against him. His mental illness led to many hardships over the years, for not only him but his wife and children as well.

Inspired by a brother who left the family to attend college, she accepted a friend’s offer to teach her to read. She enrolled in college against all odds and was forced to choose between her family and her education. Despite her passion to learn and the education she eventually received, her mind sometimes led her back to the rudimentary fundamentalist viewpoint of her father, making her question much throughout her educational journey. She had never even heard of the holocaust until she was in college.

Characters: Lots of great books have unlikeable characters, and while I found myself rooting for Tara throughout the book, I wasn’t in love with any of the characters. I was shocked by many. Disgusted with others. Westover created very “real” people, but many confound me. I was baffled by them more than like them. Yet, they interested me. The characters that stood out the most to me were:

Tara: Of course, I rooted for her all the way, but I never felt close to her. She had an aloofness about her. Because of her upbringing, her personality held a protective emotional shield that prevented people from knowing her well—even, to some degree, her readers. Simply, I couldn’t get close.
Her mother: Simply put, I did not like her for the fact she sided with her husband, who had mental challenges, over her children. Period.
Her father: I couldn’t understand and felt no compassion for him whatsoever. Lots of people have a mental illness, but they are not as evil as this man. He hid his sins behind religion.
Shawn: The abusive brother I felt differently about. Although I adamantly disliked him at times for the pain he caused family members and women, every once in a while you’d see a spark of kindness. Confusing, as the results of mental illness can be.
Minor characters I liked: Brothers Richard and Tyler were compassionate. I was fond of both of them along with Tara’s Grandmother who offered to take her to Arizona and enroll her in school. I felt disappointed Tara didn’t leave with her. Just that she offered made me like her.
Other minor characters: I wasn’t drawn to any others, not one. (And especially not to her only sister, Audrey, who in the end hurt rather than helped her.) Because many of the minor characters were introduced to me through Tara’s eyes, they seemed impersonal. Toward the end of the novel, a softness seemed to develop in Westover. She looked at later roommates and people more compassionately, seemingly letting her guard down and consequently, I liked those characters a bit more.

Storyline: The story does come across as a bit unbelieve. I did read several online articles that stated fact-finding had been extensive. That the author herself included footnotes when her memory differed from one of her siblings, gave credibility to her story. That there is a Tara Westover, who was born without record, attended college, completed her master and doctorate degrees in England, further substantiates her story—at least in my mind it does. I’ll let the rest of you decide for yourselves.

Writing style: This woman’s writing is exquisite. Not much more to say. That she rose out of such poverty to champion the English language is remarkable.

Read this author again: Maybe. I’m not often fond of non-fiction, but Westover’s writing is superb, so I may attempt another.

Read on!
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CJ Zahner is the author of The Suicide Gene, a psychological thriller, and Dream Wide Awake and Project Dream, two thrillers that carry a paranormal element. These last two novels were inspired by Zahner’s own experiences. See the video of her own paranormal experience, a premonition of 9/11 here. Download her Beyond Reality Radio podcast here. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, BookBub, or LinkedIn. Purchase her books on Amazon.