Author John Vaillant is best known for his two nonfiction books “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed” and “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival,” which were both very well received. So when his debut novel “The Jaguar’s Children” recently came out, I snatched it up quickly to read. I was lucky because John Vaillant (pictured above) gave a reading from it here on Jan. 19 where I also heard him give an interesting talk about the writing of the book and he signed my copy. He said the novel came about during the time he and his family were living for a year in 2009 in southwestern Mexico in the state of Oaxaca. And indeed Mexico figures prominently in “The Jaguar’s Children” along with its tangled ties to the U.S.
Specifically, the novel’s about two Mexican guys, friends who get trapped in a sealed water truck along with other illegal immigrants not long after they have crossed the U.S. border. The truck they are in has broken down somewhere amid the desert dirt, and the smugglers, who have taken their money, have not returned with the mechanic they promised. With little food and water, and not much air getting in, the occupants will likely live only a few days inside the truck if they don’t get help. Hector continually tries to leave messages (sound files) at an American number that he finds in his friend Cesar’s phone, hoping they can be rescued. But the cell phone coverage is very spotty and it doesn’t appear the messages are getting through.
Hell, five pages into “The Jaguar’s Children” and I felt clammy hands from their horrific situation. It’s as if you’re in the sealed truck with them where it’s very dark — like being buried alive. I’m very claustrophobic to begin with, even closed elevators make me a bit nervous. Fortunately the story veers off as Hector begins to leave cell messages hopefully to eventually go through at the American number about how he and Cesar came to be there, en route illegally to the U.S. He tells their different back stories that become as big a part of the book as the scenes in the truck, which are intermingled throughout. Hector’s story reveals a truth he comes to learn about his family, whereas Cesar’s uncovers a dark reality about his job researching corn production for the Mexican government.
Each of these tangential stories held my interest to a certain extent, but “The Jaguar’s Children” is not an easy read. While it does a great job depicting its Mexican atmosphere and the terrible struggles within the country, the novel does get confusing at times. Sometimes I had to reread parts just to figure out what was going on or which story was being described. It also uses a considerable amount of Spanish language, often without translation, which left me a bit lost. It took considerable concentration to get through everything in it, and at times I just wanted to cut to the end to find out if the two guys and people get rescued from the truck, but I held back and slowly plowed on.
In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s quite a rich portrayal of the Mexican experience, and quite dark. It cuts to the humanity really. And if a book can speak well to that then it must be good. Though I had to read “The Jaguar’s Children” quite carefully, it has stayed with me — its bleak depictions and ramifications. As for the guys and other people in the truck, you’ll have to read it to the very end to find out if they survive. I guess I’d give the novel 4 out of 5 stars if I had to rate it on Goodreads. Undoubtedly the author poured so much into it. You can really feel an immersion into the place and culture.
What about you — have you read any of this author’s books and what did you think?