CASPER, Wyo. — Jeanine Cummins is the author of the new book “American Dirt” which is on the “Oprah’s Book Club” list.
The fictional story is centered around a Mexican book store owner who is forced to attempt to flee to the United States after her husband’s book profiling a new drug cartel boss is published.
Wind City Books owner Vicki Burger managed to arrange for Cummins to visit Casper as part of a book tour organized by her publisher Flatiron Books after meeting the author and her publicist in Sept. 2019.
Article continues below...
However, Cummins’ tour was cancelled after a harsh review of the book by writer Myriam Gurba stirred backlash. The publisher said that threats against Cummins led to their decision to stop the book tour.
Burger explained on Thursday, Feb. 7 the context of what led up to the cancellation.
“Book sellers receive advanced information regarding books that are coming up because publishers want to encourage the purchase of the book,” she began. “Every publisher’s goal is that their book will debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and this book, Flatiron Press really got behind and felt like it was a very valuable book.”
“They started marketing early in the summer to booksellers, sending out advance copies to reviewers and there was a lot of momentum behind the book. Very impressive authors like Stephen King, Don Winslow [and] Sandra Cisneros all got behind the book and thought that it was wonderful.”
When she met Cummins in Denver, Burger says she became impressed with the amount of research that went into preparing the story.
“She began her research back in 2012 and put in about five years worth of research into it,” Burger says. “Much of that time was spent down in Mexico working in migrant camps and really working hard to understand the plight of people who are forced to leave their country through no fault of their own, that really don’t want to leave but for safety or for survival have to leave. I was very impressed with her.”
But one of the people who received an advanced copy of the book was Gurba, who writes in her review that getting through the novel “required that I give myself over to the project of zealously hate-reading the book.”
Burger notes that the the review is full of expletives, with the headline using an expletive in Spanish. Gurba had been commissioned to write the review to be published in a feminist magazine.
“The magazine publisher who commissioned her to write the [review] said, ‘Ma’am, you’re not famous enough to write this kind of a review’ and refused to publish it,'” Burger says. “So that’s when she published it on her blog. A lot of people got on the bandwagon because her main complaint was that that Jeanine wasn’t brown enough to write this book.”
“A lot of people in support of the Latino community and the Mexican-American community decided that they were not going to support it, different reviewers, some booksellers. But then the backlash grew.”
Burger explains that the book was released on Jan. 21. That week, Cummins held a conference “where she opened herself up to any and all questions.” Burger says the author was “very respectful and seemed to answer everyone’s concerns.”
“However, the backlash had continued to grow to the point that a couple of bookstores canceled their events with her and the publisher became concerned for her safety and for the safety of the bookstores because there were some threats, apparently,” Burger said. “The publisher maintained that the problem with the backlash was a result of their marketing and their failure to market the book correctly.”
“It did debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and on the Independent Booksellers Association’s bestseller list. So, you know, it’s done very well. It’s a quality piece of work that creates compassion and understanding for people who must leave their country through no fault of their own and helps get that conversation started regarding immigration.”
Wind City Books manager Miranda Berdhal attended a Cummins’ conference around the release of “American Dirt.”
“This happened before the tour was cancelled and had already blown up, Berdahl said. “It was a packed room, standing room only, people were sitting on the floors. There were a couple people that just brought up the controversy. Otherwise, the consensus in that room was strongly in support of her and the way that she answered those questions was beyond composed.”
“It just made me more excited because we [were planning to host] her and people would get to see firsthand that none of those things are true and she will squash all of that. It’s kind of a bummer. It’s just unfortunate. She doesn’t get the opportunity to prove all of those things false.”
Gurba explains one problem she had with the book in her blog post.
“Step aside, Jesucristo,” Gurba wrote. “There’s a new savior in town. Her name is Jeanine. Saviors terrify me, they always f*** things up, often by getting people killed, and if you don’t believe me, look closely at the first four letters of the word messiah.”
“To fit the messyanic bill, Cummins re-branded herself as a person of color. A glance at recent interviews shows Cummins now identifying as ‘Latinx,’ her claim to this identity hinging on the existence of a Puerto Rican grandmother. Cummins, however, is still breaking in her Latinx-ness because four years ago, she wasn’t. I repeat: Four years ago, Cummins was white.”
Cummins’ race was apparently not an issue for author Sandra Cisneros who has said that, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel. This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
Casper reader Toni Dovalina agrees.
“So being Mexican-American from Chicago and of the same generation as Sandra Cisneros, a famous Mexican-American novelist from Chicago who now resides in Mexico…we’re both of the same opinion,” Dovalina said on Thursday. “I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but for us the more voices the better.”
“To write something that you’re passionate about, you do not have to have a specific DNA.”
When asked what she thought Gurba meant by the term “hate read,” Burger said she understood it in this way:
“Hate reading is when you have already determined that you do not like a book and you set out to find everything that you find offensive or wrong about the book and you focus only on those points,” Burger said. “Oprah has decided that she’s going to have an open interview with Jeanine and discuss this but if we are basing whether or not you can write a book about a group of people based solely on your personal experiences or your ethnicity then Harriet Beecher Stowe could never write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is part of the American canon of books and contributed to the discussion of slavery and the abolition of slavery in this country.”
Discussions are also planned for Casper. Dovalina will be hosting a book club meeting to discuss “American Dirt” at 6:30 pm Feb. 18 at Steamboat Deli.
Wind City Books will also host an event at Gruner Brothers on March 18, the date Cummins had been scheduled to visit Casper.
“We’ve decided to go ahead and continue with an event although Janine will not be there,” Burger says. “We’re working on what exactly that format will be. But so many of the book clubs have chosen it as their selection that we thought it would be a great opportunity for book clubs throughout the city to get together in one place and I’m thinking maybe we’ll have a panel.”
One person who may sit on that panel is Ash Miller, who also works at Wind City Books.
“I’m more upset about how [the controversy] has affected [Wind City] and small businesses everywhere, all the book stores and everything because that was going to be a very big event and that’s essentially who is hurting in the bottom line,” Miller said. “[Cummins] is still going to make her money…but everyone else is going to suffer.”
“I think that some people are afraid that people will read it and form opinions on immigration policy from it…if that’s the only thing that they are getting their opinions from then that’s on them that they’re not reading more. They need to be looking more into things. I read it purely as a piece of fiction. It took me away from the current moment and was written beautifully enough that I liked it a lot to give it just about perfect score when I reviewed it.”
Gurba does express such concern that the book could shape immigration policy in the United States. In her blog post, she imagines “American Dirt” being adapted for film.
“Because my catastrophic imagination is highly active these days, I can visualize what this film might inspire,” Gurba wrote. “I can see Trump sitting in the White House’s movie theatre, his little hands reaching for popcorn as he absorbs Dirt’s screen adaptation. ‘This!’ he yells. ‘This is why we must invade.'”
“I don’t think Cummins intended to write a novel that would serve a Trumpian agenda but that’s the danger of becoming a messiah. You never know who will follow you into the promised land.”
This isn’t the first time Burger has dealt with controversy, though it may be the most dramatic example in her time at Wind City Books.
“The only other book I can think of that really attracted this sort of backlash was Harper Lee’s manuscript ‘Go Set a Watchman’ which actually preceded ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” Burger says. “When that was published it was an unedited, unfinished manuscript. It didn’t have quite the polish that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ did, but people took offense at the portrayal of Atticus Finch in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and said he’s a racist.”
“He’s not. They forgot that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was fiction. They forgot the time period in which ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ were written and so there were booksellers who said, ‘I’m not going to sell this book. I’m not going to promote this book.'”
Burger explains that she hadn’t read the book when a distributor approached her.
“He said, ‘I really think you should,'” Burger explains. “He said, ‘I’m black and I don’t find anything offensive in it. It’s a statement of the times, it’s what it was like.’ But you know, there was a similar amount of backlash.”
“Not as much, however, because Harper Lee by this point was dead and also I think that we had not become quite as sensitive as we are and easily offended as we are today.”
While Gurba’s review may have disrupted the book tour, it might not be harming book sales.
“I think the the negative backlash has possibly prompted sales, you know, it’s hard to say here,” Burger says. “In the first 10 days, including pre-sales, we had sold 52 books. So I do think that the controversy has had some benefits at least in terms of sales.”
“I do not like what it has done to the author’s reputation. I feel like it’s very very unfair.”
While Burger’s opinion of “American Dirt” and Gurba’s review may be clear, she encourages people to make up their own minds.
“I would recommend that people read it and judge for themselves,” she said. “Keep in mind that it’s a work of fiction and, you know, a lot of these people who have come out against the book have not read it.”
“Just keep an open mind and make make a judgment of your own and don’t allow other people to influence how you feel.”