Book review: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant - Mexicans' deadly bid for new life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm


The Jaguar's Children
by John Vaillant
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It's hard to imagine a more viscerally horrific scenario than the one John Vaillant devises for his characters in The Jaguar's Children, a brutally fascinating novel.

A number of Mexicans from Oaxaca pay human-smuggling coyotes about US$2,000 each to transport them to el Norte. The dozen or so men and women trustingly climb into the tank of a water truck and are sealed in. The narrator, Hector, and his buddy Cesar hunker towards the back. Because it's a short trip from their boarding point in Altar, Sonora, across the border to Arizona, each carries only a litre or so of water and meagre possessions.

When the truck breaks down, the coyotes take off, promising to bring back a mechanic. So begins the waiting, detailed through Hector's frantic text messages (are they going anywhere?), mental wanderings and reminiscences.

Days pass, with the conditions inside the truck deteriorating. One more layer to this hell: tanker trucks are curved. So the inmates can't stand, can't sit straight, can't get comfortable in any position. Soon they begin to die.

Early in the ordeal, Cesar is badly injured. Hector tends to his friend as best he can, zealously holding back Cesar's water until he can't help himself and begins to take sips. Add guilt to everything else.

Eventually, Hector becomes as one with the jaguar totem he carries with him: "When I woke up I was licking his face and I did not stop - could not. All the blood and sweat on him - his forehead, his eyes, his ear where it collected. I cleaned him like a cat. It is another world in here, where your mind watches from far away, and need and pain are the only gods you recognise."

For anyone wanting to truly understand the onslaught of illegal Mexican immigration to the US, look no further than this book. It's a timely, gorgeously written example of how great fiction can prove more illuminating than even the most stirring non-fiction.

Vaillant takes no prisoners in his indictment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which combined with Monsanto and other companies' modification of corn crops, has pretty much destroyed the Oaxacan way of life.

The author and his protagonist even dare to ponder a pie-in-the-sky solution, albeit with a wit that infuses the book. It's that spark that makes us love Hector and root for him, and perhaps to think his idea isn't all that insane: "Maybe this is our destiny - not for Mexico to lose her people or for America to lose her soul, but for all of us to come together - the United States of Améxica. It will be a new superpower, but with better food."

Tribune News Service