John Vaillant is a bestselling and award-winning non-fiction author who I’m pleased to say has finally turned his sights toward fiction. His interests include stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world, and that is definitely part of the story he brings us in The Jaguar’s Children. The subtitles for his non-fiction novels include the words myth, greed, and survival, all of which run throughout this novel along with the need for connection.
The Jaguar’s Children has already been made a Library Editors BEA (Book Expo America) Pick and an Indie Next Title for February 2015. In fact, one newspaper said it should be required reading for every civics class in the U.S. If you liked The Life of Pi, you need to check this one out. And definitely enter our giveaway to win a copy!
Hector just wanted a better life. That’s all he wanted when he left Oaxaca. Now he’s trapped and he doesn’t know if he will live at all. How could things go so wrong so fast?
After circumstances Hector could never have predicted, he was reunited with a school friend, Cesar, and that led to them having no choice but to flee in the middle of the night. After making the long dangerous trek to the border town, these two young men have two choices in how coyotes can attempt to get them across the border: 1), by foot; or 2), inside of a water tanker truck. Hector has always thought Cesar was by far the smarter of the two and he is adamant that the tanker is the way to do it. Hector’s father’s boss, Don Serafin, has agreed to front the money for coyotes to take Hector by foot but the tanker costs more. Still, it will be much faster, a matter of hours instead of days, and is supposed to be far less dangerous. Hector’s father is able to beg the extra loan from Don Serafin to Hector’s profound relief…a relief that has since turned to horror.
“[Lupo said,] ‘…Or maybe they just kill you for your liver and kidneys – there is a market for that here too – and when they finish there are many holes in the desert filled with Oaxacas just like you.’
‘My brother Goyo made this trip many times,’ said Cesar, ‘But five years ago was the last time. Before, it was different – you could go back and forth, no problems. You might get robbed, but you wouldn’t be kidnapped and killed. Now the whole situation is changing – many times they move the people and the drugs together. I think now he can never come back to Mexico.’
It is the same for my tio in L.A. who has no papers. He hasn’t been home in ten years. That part of the family is broken off now, like they went to China.”
After the coyotes seal Hector, Cesar and the others into the water tank it is clear the conditions are dreadful, but at least it will only be for a few hours Hector rationalizes. No walks through the desert where people drop dead routinely and border guards sometimes shoot first and ask questions later. But then, while they’re still celebrating making it across the border and are headed swiftly toward their drop-off point, something happens to the tanker in the middle of the El Norte desert. Everyone inside hears it happen. They then hear the coyotes arguing outside the truck about whether to just abandon the truck with its human cargo instead of getting it fixed and running the risk of arrest.
One of the coyotes opens the small hatch on top of the tanker and asks the occupants for more money to pay for a mechanic to come out and fix it – without the money, they will have to abandon the tanker. The people inside give all they have, even though they feel cheated and know it will make getting where they need to go after the drop-off much harder. The coyotes say they will be back soon with the mechanic to get the tanker fixed and leave – leaving their passengers sitting inside a wet, moldy, smelly, roasting tanker out in the desert sun.
“Vamanos was the last human word we heard out there, but even with the shouting I could hear the coyotes’ feet grinding past us over the rocks and sand, heading back from where we came. Some in the tank followed the sound, calling out and chasing after it until they were on top of me and Cesar, pounding on the back wall and screaming. I stayed in my place, my back against the wall and my legs across Cesar with my hands up, trying to keep people from stepping on him…So many trying to get out in every direction – stepping on anyone in their way, trying to open the money hole, others praying or crying or trying not to be hurt. I heard the baker from Michoacan shouting, ‘Don’t panic! They’ll come back. They have to come back!’…Never have I see such fear in one small place, the eyes so wide and the pupils so big they looked like from another animal.”
The passengers are given no extra water, no extra food, nothing – just left in a dark, hot tanker with no exit. The men inside try to find ways to break through the weld that holds them inside, but to no avail. The weld is so strong that nothing can break it, including several of them jumping up and down on it with all their weight. They finally realize they are completely trapped and no one knows where they are.
Cesar hit his head when the truck jolted to a stop and is completely unconscious. As hours pass and day descends into night without the coyotes’ return, people frantically try phoning anyone on their cell phones. But they can’t get signals on the cheap pay-as-you-go models most have. The only phone that works at least part of the time is Cesar’s smart phone. Desperate for someone to know what’s happening, Hector tries to reach an American name in Cesar’s contact list, AnniMac, leaving her text messages repeatedly. When he gets no return text or call, he struggles with what to do.
Since Cesar’s phone is the only one with a signal at this point, and the coyotes are long overdue, Hector realizes they may not survive this ordeal. If they don’t then he wants the world to know their history; including who he and Cesar are, and how they came to this point. So for four days, he tells the phone about Oaxaca, its history and the story of how they came to be in this hellhole of a tanker sitting in the desert.
Will the coyotes finally return or are they gone for good? Will the helicopters or planes flying over spot the seemingly deserted tanker and send help? Or will Hector, Cesar, and their fellow occupants meet their end trapped inside the tanker shell? Is there any way Hector and/or Cesar can survive? And, if they don’t, will Hector’s messages to AnniMac mean their story will be preserved?
I know it probably feels like I’m leaving you hanging but if I begin to dig into who Hector and Cesar are, and how they came to this journey, it would take a book-sized synopsis. It is a spellbinding story, and it’s also the story of two people wanting what all people everywhere want – a better life and to not mess things up too badly in the process.
Long story short: Hector is one of those people who tries very hard to do the right thing. Both young men have a profound sense of justice. Cesar is quite brilliant; however, his values led him to get into trouble when he learned things at work he shouldn’t have. So now his life literally depends on him getting across the border. Unfortunately, the extremely lethal people after him are also now after Hector by association.
The suspense in The Jaguar’s Children begins on Page 1 and ramps up from there. John Vaillant does an excellent job of portraying the deeply enmeshed relationship the U.S. has with Mexico and Latin America, and how that has evolved. The time he spent living in Oaxaca shows in the depth he brings to the story and his enlightening perspective on issues a lot of us in the U.S. don’t understand that well. This novel provides an important perspective on the border between these countries and how changes in immigration laws have produced some unexpected consequences that heavily and negatively impact our neighbors to the south. (Hence one newspaper’s plea that it be made part of civics classes.)
Above all, The Jaguar’s Children showcases the needs, hopes, and dreams of every man, woman, and child on the planet. This is, bottom line, a story that has played out over and over again throughout time as people have moved about this beautiful planet in their ongoing need to survive and thrive. And, yes, it is in some ways reminiscent of The Life of Pi, while in other ways it is very much its own “animal.”
Should you read it? I was blown away by it but only you will know if this is your kind of novel. If so, enter our giveaway or take advantage of the links below to grab a copy!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Jaguar’s Children was published on January 27, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant!
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