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Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," is the latest addition to Oprah's Book Club.
Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," is the latest addition to Oprah's Book Club. (Joe Kennedy, Baltimore Sun)

Jeanine Cummins didn’t believe it was her at first. Still jet-lagged after flying in from the U.K., Cummins thought somebody was putting her on. But happily, she came around.

The call was “the best moment of my life,” the Maryland-raised author said Tuesday morning on CBS. "It’s the four words every writer dreams of hearing: ‘Jeanine, it’s Oprah Winfrey.’”

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You can understand her enthusiasm. Winfrey was calling to let Cummins know that her novel, “American Dirt,” was to be the latest entry on Oprah’s Book Club. The two women appeared on “CBS This Morning” Tuesday to make the announcement.

Winfrey voiced high praise for “American Dirt,” whose hero, Lydia, escapes from Mexico to the U.S. with her son after surviving a devastating attack by a drug cartel. “I was immediately drawn into the story, and their desire to get to the United States," Winfrey said. “Every night on the news, I think you hear so many stories, you hear so many migrant stories…I thought this humanized that migration process in a way that nothing else I had ever felt or seen had.”

Born on a U.S. naval base in Rota, Spain, Cummins grew up in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County, and graduated from Towson University. She began writing novels after moving to Queens, N.Y., focusing on works “that exposed social injustice and that also drew on her Irish heritage,” reporter Mary Carole McCauley wrote in a March 2013 Q&A in the Baltimore Sun. “The Outside Boy,” set in Ireland and published in 2010, deals with a marginalized social group, the Pavee gypsies. “The Crooked Branch,” published in 2013, is partially set during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

Those novels followed a 2004 memoir, “A Rip In Heaven,” about the 1991 gang-rape and murder of two of her cousins, Julie and Robin Kerry. Her older brother, Tom, was also hurt during the attack on a bridge outside St. Louis. Four men were later convicted of the crime; one was executed in October 2005.

"American Dirt" by Gaithersburg-raised novelist Jeanine Cummins is the latest entry in Oprah's Book Club.
"American Dirt" by Gaithersburg-raised novelist Jeanine Cummins is the latest entry in Oprah's Book Club. (AP)

Speaking about “American Dirt,” Cummins, 45, told “CBS This Morning” that she “always knew that I wanted to write about immigration.” But she hesitated, she said, unsure she was qualified to do so.

“I resisted for a very long time...telling the story from a migrant’s point of view,” she said. “I was worried that I didn’t know enough, that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”

In fact, the book has been stirring up a lot of controversy, especially from Latino and Latina writers. They question whether Cummins has the background and experience to write about the subject matter.

She said she decided to write the book after a Chicano studies professor told her, “Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story.”

Cummins later posted on her Facebook page that being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club was “the most surreal moment of my life."

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