The City of Gaithersburg’s new community-wide initiative, “Gaithersburg READS!”, will begin with a novel by a native daughter. The plan is for all participants to read “American Dirt,” due out Jan. 21, and for its author, Jeanine Cummins, to return to her alma mater, Gaithersburg High School, on March 31 for a discussion and signing.
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, who conceived of and initiated the annual Gaithersburg Book Festival in 2010, noted that Cummins was a featured author at the 2013 event. “Last June, when my author recruitment team saw how ‘American Dirt’ was being received and buzzed-about at Book Expo America (the largest book industry trade show of the year) … we thought we could possibly put together a special event,” he recalled.
After he read an advance copy of the book, “the full idea of a community-wide ‘read’” took hold. “That’s when the relevance of the work really hit me. Here we are in Gaithersburg, one of the top two most diverse cities in the United States, a place where roughly a third of our residents were born in another country—and many of whom have compelling immigrant stories of their own,” Ashman said. “And here we have this amazing, heavily researched page-turner of an immigrant story written by one of our own; it just made all the sense in the world to get the whole community involved and behind it.”
When Cummins, who now lives in Rockland County, New York, with her husband and two daughters, learned about being chosen as the program’s first author, she said, “I couldn’t wait to tell my mom!”
Her mom, a retired Shady Grove Adventist Hospital nurse, was indeed delighted to alert the members of her book club. She, and the rest of Cummins’ immediate family, have “deep roots” in the Quail Valley community and Montgomery County. The author’s dad has served as a deacon for St. Martin and St. John Neumann Catholic churches, her brother is a county firefighter and her sister ran The Lord’s Table soup kitchen.
“I didn’t understand how remarkable, rare and precious Montgomery County was until I lived in other places,” said Cummins. “I took its diversity and integrated communities for granted. I grew up with friends of every race and creed. It was idyllic.”
Cummins left home at age 17 to attend Towson University, where she studied English and mass communications. Post-graduation, she spent about two years living in Belfast, Ireland, among “my faraway sisters,” young women who had spent summers with her family while she was growing up.
Upon returning to the U.S., Cummins settled in New York City. Since she “always knew I wanted to be a writer,” her goal was to “infiltrate the publishing industry from the inside and figure out what I could.” She did just that, working for Penguin Books for a decade, where her boss and co-workers—“They believed in me,” she said—facilitated the publishing and success of her memoir, “A Rip in Heaven” (2004). The book, which, she said, “debuted at number-two on The Washington Post bestsellers’ list,” told the “incredibly painful” true story of the brutal attack on her brother and two female cousins in St. Louis; her brother was the only survivor.
“The book was a love letter to the people I lost,” said Cummins, who was 16 at the time, but wrote the book in her early 20s. “It took me many years to understand.”
After the 2007 birth of her first daughter, Cummins said, “I realized I couldn’t be a mom, hold a full-time job that involved a lot of travel and write at the same time.” She left Penguin, and two works of fiction followed: “The Outside Boy” (2010) and “The Crooked Branch” (2013).
In the first, Cummins explored the dichotomy between the Irish cornerstone tradition of hospitality and its animosity toward Pavee gypsies. The second novel alternates between the narratives of an isolated first-time mother in the County of Mayo, Ireland, during the 1800s famine and her descendant, a struggling new mother in present-day Queens (the New York City borough where the author resided for about 15 years). Cummins said she wanted to illuminate “the common lack of understanding that famine was preventable then—as it is now.”
Cummins identified one common theme in her work: “an issue misrepresented or stereotyped, a flawed current representation that I reframe in a more equitable way.”
Her new book, “American Dirt,” constitutes Cummins’ effort to “subvert the popular misconceptions about migrants.” “On the first page,” the author said, “there is a horrific massacre at a family birthday party. Lydia, a bookseller in Acapulco, Mexico, and her 8-year-old son Luca are the only survivors. On the run from a Mexican cartel, they suddenly go from being middle
class to migrants.”
“I tried to recast the story in a new way, away from the superficial stereotyping of who these migrants are,” Cummins explained. “Fiction can put you inside the skin of another vulnerable human being whose life and child are on the line. What laws would you break in their situation?”
Cummins said she had doubts about whether she had the “right to write this story” since she is not Mexican. Her family heritage is both Irish and Puerto Rican. To enhance her understanding, she did “intensive research,” including trips to Mexico. In the end, she felt “an obligation, a responsibility to be engaged in this conversation about migrants,” and to distinguish the truth between the “dueling narratives of the far right’s mob of invading criminals who want to steal our jobs, health care and women,” and the far left’s somewhat paternalistic, condescending attitude.
“We have to remember that these are human beings who must be treated humanely. We must meet our moral obligation to help them.
“There are no politics in the book,” Cummins emphasized. “My highest hope is that people read this book and realize and understand what these people are facing.”
Cummins is about to embark upon a three-month book tour, during which she plans to ponder “some very vague ideas” for her next novel—possibly set in Puerto Rico.