Author: Jeanine Cummins
First, let me say I enjoyed reading this story. In addition to being an Oprah Book Club selection that was just released in January, it rated 4.32 stars on Goodreads and 4.8 stars at Barnes & Noble. In choosing to read this book and discussing it among friends, I inadvertently stumbled into a controversy I was not prepared for. I am not Latinx and can only speak about this book from my own point of view. But apparently, I’m in good company; Oprah stepped into the same controversy. More about that later.
This is a story of Lydia Quixano Pérez, a middle-class owner of a small bookstore, from Acapulco, Mexico. She and her husband, Sebastian, have an eight-year-old son, Luca. When a charming gentleman buys two of Lydia’s favorite books, they start up a conversation that leads to a friendship.
Lydia’s journalist husband publishes an exposé about the leader of the new and very violent drug cartel, and shortly after, 16 members of Lydia’s family are killed at a barbecue. Only Lydia and Luca, who hide in the house, are left alive. Lydia then realizes her “friend” from the bookstore is the head of the cartel. Knowing she and Luca are next, she tries to escape to somewhere out of their reach, which means out of Mexico and up to el norte (the United States). Their trip is fraught with danger, not just from violence and robbery but also from the danger of traveling on foot and riding on top of the trains, heading north with other migrants.
Lydia and Luca’s trip is described in detail, and I marked some places where I liked the author’s descriptions and use of metaphor. The story moved along at a good pace, and the little details of traveling with a young child hit home with me. Having heard southwest border migrant stories only on the news, I was interested to read a book about someone who was a middle-class wife and mother having to migrate to seek safety in the U.S.
Before I moved to Lake Nona, I lived in the same place all my life except for college. The immigrant story more broadly has always interested me. The U.S. has often been a home for immigrants from many different places. Recently, I have found many new friends in Lake Nona from so many other states and countries that I wondered what makes someone move from one region, country, culture, language to another? What do they find when they get there? How do they settle in? Those questions, along with the current news aspect of the border-migrant dilemma, drew me to this story.
When I chose this book, I was not aware of the Oprah Book Club controversy. I am not Latinx, not of Mexican heritage, and have not spent any time in Central or Western Mexico or the border region. And initially, I would say I liked the book. It was a “woman escaping danger” story that takes place in northern Mexico. I soon found out that many Mexican/American immigrants and expats (literary and otherwise) have a VERY different view of the way this story is portrayed. Their differences, most made public on social media, the web, and in print, range from characters that are caricatures, telling an ethnic story from a white, eastern viewpoint, and publishers who overlook much more authentic Latinx voices.
The discussions are a little more complicated than simply a non-Mexican author appropriating their Mexican story. I’m neither willing nor able to jump into that discussion. So I suggest you read the book and decide for yourself. I was disappointed to hear many Mexican/American educators say that they would not even read the book. I can understand not wanting to support an already successful non-Mexican in telling a Mexican immigrant story. Maybe they just shouldn’t purchase the book. They could get it from the library and help readers understand which elements they think make for an untruthful portrayal. I think that approach would further the cause of helping readers understand the true immigrant experience.