Book review: “The Jaguar’s Children,” by John Vaillant |

Book review: “The Jaguar’s Children,” by John Vaillant

Emily Katzman/For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
The Jaguar's Children

“The Jaguar’s Children,” by John Vaillant, is a critical, engaging novel that tells the story of Mexico, the United States and the border between; this is the story of two young men whose hopes for their individual lives and the homeland they love have been dimmed in the looming shadow of el Norte.

The story begins with a troubled text message from Héctor Lazaro. Héctor is trapped in a water truck carrying 14 other people, all of whom had placed their trust in the coyotes, human traffickers they paid to transport them across the border from Altar to Tucson. The truck has broken down, and the coyotes have left, ostensibly to get help. All those trapped inside can do is wait and conserve their drinking water. Temperatures fluctuate wildly as day turns to night and to day again. The air becomes fetid and exhausted. The thirst persists. Héctor calls out to the world for help using his friend César’s cell phone, which contains one American phone number.

The story unfolds as Héctor recounts how he and César both came to this situation. Over the course of four days, Héctor uses text messages and sound files to paint rich, intimate pictures of Oaxaca, his homeland, of Zapotec culture and his family. These messages become equal parts distress call and prayer. Ultimately, Héctor and César’s stories illuminate the ugly side of globalized agribusiness, specifically, how the consequences of NAFTA undermine traditional food production and threaten livelihoods and food security in Mexico.

As the days pass, Héctor reaches a state of liminality: physically, he is trapped on the border of two great countries, and psychologically, he dances between lucidity and delirium until even the threshold separating life from death is obscured.

“The Jaguar’s Children” is Vaillant’s first novel, though readers will be familiar with him from his previous two non-fiction books, “The Golden Spruce,” and “The Tiger.” As with his other books, “The Jaguar’s Children” is well-researched and sharply, beautifully written. I admire Vaillant for his ability to tell a multi-dimensional story in all its complexity — he contextualizes his characters by incorporating history, mythology, spirituality and geopolitical issues into the narrative.

This book challenged me. After I finished reading, I felt compelled to do my own additional research and reading; the book ultimately encouraged me to change my perspective on the border and immigration issues. “The Jaguar’s Children” is an important book that I am glad to have read.

If you would like to hear about The Jaguar’s Children from the author himself, he will be visiting Steamboat Springs on part of his book tour this week. We’re looking forward to welcoming John Vaillant to Off the Beaten Path from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Emily Katzman is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path bookstore.

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