Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: January 27th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
There is always some fact in fiction but in The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant there is likely to be much more than expected. The story is a simple one in terms of characters and staging because it takes place inside a water tanker truck over the course of three days when it is left in the desert near Nogales, Arizona after stopping due to mechanical problems. The narrator is a young man named Hector and he is one of fifteen people inside the water tank. He has paid 30,000 pesos ($2,000) for what was promised to be a three hour journey from Mexico City to the United States. Now the truck has broken down, the men smuggling them are gone, and they have no way out.
When the truck stopped suddenly Hector’s friend Cesar was slammed against a pipe and is unconscious. Hector is using his phone to call both the Mexican and American emergency numbers and anyone in Cesar’s contacts to come and help them. He finds the number for a contact listed as AnniMac and calls her repeatedly but with a limited signal he gets no response and turns to speaking to her using the phone’s audio recording feature. As the time passes and the situation becomes more desperate, with people finishing their water supplies and trying to stay cool during the day and warm at night, Hector continues to create sound files for the unknown AnniMac. In them he tells his story and Cesar’s and how they came to be in this place.
By letting Hector’s mind return to his past Vaillant allows us to leave the claustrophobic nightmare inside the tank. In the total darkness the colors and textures of his small life are brought to light as the voices around him weep, argue, and pray. When his hope and cell phone battery wear down he slips further and further into the past, recalling his grandfather and his tales about the jaguar—an animal feared and revered in Oaxaca, the state where he lived. At the same time, the counterpoint to these happy memories is found in the matter-of-fact way Hector recounts the realities of life in his small town. Corruption and violence abound with no recourse to justice. Vaillant never strays from the simple prose a man like Hector would use but it is this simplicity, compounded by a quiet resignation that strikes deep. He realizes that his chances of survival are slim but continues to care for the unconscious Cesar and apologizes again and again as he finally has to take to Cesar’s water for himself. At no time does he explode with rage over his situation but continues to make requests for help and sends prayers to those who might hear him.
Vaillant is not trying to prosecute a pro-immigration case in The Jaguar’s Children but is putting a human face on a situation that those of us who take stability, safety and freedom for granted never think about. No matter how you feel about illegal immigrants coming over U.S. borders what happens in the novel is so psychologically distressing it is, in a sense, a horror story. It is not one of suspense or mystery, it is one of the desperation a person must feel in order to agree to be sealed into a steel tank alive with no way of getting out. Through the spirit and words of Hector, Vaillant painfully parses a larger political situation into its human components and does so through a novel that is brutal, poignant, and unforgettable.
John Vaillant will be reading from The Jaguar’s Children and discussing the novel at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Tuesday, February 3rd, at 7:00pm.
The novel is available for purchase online at: