When I was a teenager, I read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It had, and still has, a profound influence on me.
An entire regional population was forced to abandon their homes by a calamitous confluence of drought and The Great Depression. Hardworking sharecroppers, whose roots were planted deep in the parched soil of Oklahoma’s dust bowl, set out to start a new life in the golden promised land of California.
Steinbeck follows their trek through the travail and injustice that accompanied every step of their journey. As the pages turn, the master storyteller shows the prejudice and cruelty that the migrants faced throughout their long trek as well as the broken promises at their destination.
The lesson I’ve carried with me is to observe how so many of us with sufficiency have lost touch with our humanity and the moral lessons of caring and sharing that we grew up with.
My wife Judy implored me for months to read a book called “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins. As busy as I am volunteering with The IN-CROWD these days, I don’t get to read much. The three Sun Sentinel Sunday puzzles are my “literature” each week.
My dear wife stuck with it until I finally relented and bought a used copy on eBay for $7 plus postage. Even after it arrived it took a few weeks to pick it up, but I finally got to it.
“American Dirt” brought back my feelings and thoughts while reading “Grapes.” Both books are completely relevant to today’s world. Both authors employ the parable of immigration to reveal the character, and lack thereof, of our society and ourselves.
Over the years I’ve had friends involved in music and the arts. One piece of advice I give them, when asked, is that if you are going to do someone else’s song, you damn well better do it better — and you better make it your own. That’s almost impossible to pull off when you are following a master like a Streisand, a Presley, or a Steinbeck. Cummins has pulled it off in her book.
Not only is her story riveting, but her prose is pure poetry. Her characters come alive and compel you to take sides. The story is constantly moving and suspenseful, so much so that I lived the story as I read it. I put aside my beloved puzzles until I read her last word.
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Most important was my takeaway. When we hear about the cavalcades, the statistics, the supposed threat the migrants pose to our economy, our very way of life, and such, we are being frightened into regarding these fellow human beings as being something less than ourselves.
We forget that not too long ago our own forebears were migrants who were likewise dehumanized and “otherized” as something less than human. We are trained to be fearful of these neighbors who share our aspirations and values, if not our language.
As Steinbeck did some eight decades ago, Cummins calls out this selfishness and xenophobia. She reveals her protagonists as loving and lovable human beings who want nothing more than to escape from their murderous environment and to come to El Norte to contribute — as so many have done before them.
“American Dirt” may clean your mind, awaken your compassion, and deeply move you.
Steve West is a social justice advocate and entrepreneur living in Delray Beach.