Top 10 Books of 2020: Number 5

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

While a lot of the books on my 2020 list were released last year (a natural result of having a book club that reads new releases), this is not one of them. Our book club read Simonson’s other book The Summer Before the War back in 2019, and loved it. So, I picked up Major Pettigrew, and we read that collectively this past spring. While Summer was very good, I enjoyed Pettigrew much, much better. There are books that I pass on to friends because I read them and they’re interested in them, and there are books that I pass on because I thought they were that good and feel the need to evangelize them. This was the latter.

This book is about an older gentleman, Major Ernest Pettigrew, living a quiet and comfortable life in the English countryside. His brother dies, and Pettigrew’s comfortable life becomes upended. He’s forced to deal not only with his own mortality, but the time honored tradition of fighting over your loved one’s belongings and – dare I say it – falls in love.

Major Pettigrew is witty in that blustery old Englishman way that I think you’ll either love or find incredibly dull. Obviously for me, it was the former. The story also deals with family traditions – when to dig in your heels, and when to let go – as well as tackling racism. Yet, while discussing these somewhat weighty issues, the book is humorous and light, and won’t keep you up at night worrying about the world.

For being a cute, delightful, and yet thoughtful novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand earns a blustery spot on my top 10 list.

Top Ten Books of 2020: Number 6

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt generated a lot of controversy, even before being released last January. If you want to look into that, be my guest. What I would like to focus on is the book itself, which I ended up thoroughly enjoying.

After the brutal murder of her husband and family (except for her son), Lydia finds herself fleeing from a Mexican cartel, giving up a life she loved in order to find safety in the unwelcoming arms of the United States.
Beyond that, I don’t want to spoil what is an incredibly interesting and nuanced plot – far more than I was expecting.

While the book is a fictional story, many of the situations that Lydia and her son find themselves in are ones that immigrants face every day. Whether it’s questioning whom she can trust, jumping onto a train, crossing the desert on minimal supplies, or dealing with lecherous attention, there are endless perils that I don’t believe most of us think about when we think about immigrants. While Lydia and her son are running from a cartel, there are other stories highlighted in other characters throughout the book – a woman who was kicked out of the US and is trying to get back to her naturalized son, workers who jump back and forth across the border seasonally for work, and those who really do view the US as a land of opportunity and a last hope for a fresh start.

I found the story gripping – at no point did I take it for granted that Lydia and her son would actually make it across the border. In fact, you meet enough characters along the way who don’t make it that the end of the book feels like nothing short of a miracle.

Moreover, the book feels like an empathy builder. Immigration has been a tense topic in America for the last several years, and while I think that just about everyone has an opinion, the vast majority of us have no experience with the subject. It’s so easy to advocate for keeping people in cages at the border when you forget that they are actual people and there but for the grace of God, you might be there too. We have a relative security in this country that a lot of people in Mexico do not have. While we certainly have our own share of problems in America, at no point do I anticipate having to flee on foot on Canada, not daring to access any electronics, knowing that there are people actively seeking to kill me.
American Dirt will take you out of your bubble and introduce you to other ideas and the fact that there’s a lot more nuance than we’d like to consider. Immigration isn’t a black and white issue. There’s a lot of shades and colors and lives in-between. That, simply put, is why the book comes in at number six on my top ten list. (Perhaps it should have been higher. I don’t know if I have such thought out justifications for other choices!)