BookBrowse Reviews The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant

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The Jaguar's Children

by John Vaillant

The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant X
The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 288 pages

    Jan 2016, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book



A water truck, sealed to hide its human cargo, has broken down. Over four days, as water and food run low, two men tell how they came to this desperate place.

Eight years ago, an abandoned water truck containing the bodies of more than a dozen illegal immigrants was discovered in Arizona's Altar Valley, approximately one mile north of the Mexican border. Also found was a transcript of around seventy-five soundfiles and seven text messages recorded from the cell phone of one of the vehicle's passengers, Cesar Ramirez Santiago, resident of Mexico City. The Jaguar's Children imagines the life of two of the truck's passengers, Cesar and his friend, Hector, and is told mostly in the form of transcribed audio files.

As the novel opens, the reader learns that the lengths to which these fifteen passengers have gone to gain passage into "El Norte" is mind-bogglingly horrific. For thirty thousand pesos each, they have agreed to be transported in a sealed water truck. Passage to the United States is supposed to be quick, less than three hours. Unfortunately things go horribly awry. The truck breaks down in the middle of arid land and the crew members desert the vehicle, leaving the passengers stranded. The novel opens in medias res, with Cesar knocked out from a minor accident and his friend, Hector, trying to come to terms with the gravity of the dire situation. In the heat, water is a precious, closely guarded commodity. The potential ray of hope is Cesar's cell phone left with just a couple of bars and a phone number belonging to a gringa, AnniMac, in the United States.

At first, Hector's pleas to AnniMac stick to the basics: water, rescue. As the hours go by and hope dwindles, Hector additionally narrates his life story interspersed with Cesar's. An immigrant's reason to make a life in a new land is always personal, and Hector and Cesar are galvanized by quite different motivations. Hector, for one, has been to El Norte before, all the way north to Massachusetts, before he and his father were deported. Ever since that sneak peek, Hector's father is convinced that the future does not lie in Mexico, it lies up in the United States. Cesar has much more urgent reasons to leave for America and these chapters, mixed in with the look at their lives in Oaxaca, paint a vivid, colorful portrait of the Mexican countryside.

Elements of magical realism introduce us to the jaguar, the animal spirit that has protected Hector and his Zapotec ancestors since time immemorial. It is ironic then that the water truck he finds himself in is named J-A-G-U-A-R: someone has painted a J and an R bracketing the word AGUA.

The Jaguar's Children succeeds, not just in its portrayal of the Mexican countryside, but it lays bare the complexities of life in a country where jobs are few and far to come by, where NAFTA has upended the country's economics (Mexico, the land of corn, now imports it from the United States, Vaillant reminds us), and where a miracle or immigration are the only ways to some kind of normalcy. "Now, at night, if you look out over the valley of Oaxaca, cradle of the Zapotec civilization, you will see stars above the dark and ancient mountains, shadows of pyramids on the ridges, maybe the moon rising behind — and down by the baseball stadium, the great golden chichis of Santa McDona." Valiant's message comes through loud and clear: There are no happy meals here. Globalization ain't pretty. There are times however, when the narrator's stance comes across as too reductive: "When those Greeks were hiding in that horse they wanted to attack the city," he writes, "and when the terrorists were hiding in those planes they wanted to attack the country, but when Mexicanos hide in a truck, what do they want to do? They want to pick the lettuce. And cut your grass."

At its best, The Jaguar's Children is a humane look at the everyday people behind the headlines. It is said that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. By the end of the novel, we begin to see why Hector and Cesar would even bother playing such a high-stakes game. In that sense The Jaguar's Children fulfills fiction's essential function remarkably well — shining light on the human condition.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2015, and has been updated for the January 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Migrant Smuggling


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