Literature proponents like to say we read to understand the human condition. I would modify that: we read to learn about the human condition; to understand it is impossible.
The Jaguar’s Children is one of the latest novels I’ve devoured that takes on the complexities, and horrors, of contemporary humanity. Fifteen desperate Mexicans and Central Americans place their lives, and for some of them the lives of their children, in the hands of untrustworthy coyotes in their collective quest to cross the border to el Norte. Their heartwrenching stories define determination, especially in light of the sad truth: their journey takes them into an unforgiving landscape where survival is not guaranteed and where the unwelcoming US border patrol might apprehend them. The Boston Globe reported in 2014 that over 6,000 have died while trying to cross the southern border since 1998, according to federal records (which makes me wonder what the real number is). An AP report shows that over 420,000 were apprehended and sent home after trying to cross the border in 2013. And the Washington Post cites statistics that only half the number who attempt to cross are successful.
With the odds heavily stacked against these immigrants, and given the dangers involved, one can’t help but wonder why they even try. Are they that desperate? Or just terribly ignorant? Of course, those of us sitting comfortably in the USA don’t really get their plight, and this is where John Valliant’s novel comes in. It opens with a deeply disturbing scene wherein these fifteen immigrants are trapped in the sizzling desert, having been abandoned by their coyotes. The reader doesn’t know at first why they wanted to cross the border, or whether they’ve made it, or why the coyotes left them, or why they’re sealed inside a water tanker truck; the answers to these questions will be revealed as the novel unfolds. The reader isn’t sure, either, if she wants to continue reading, because the scene is so disturbing. “The situation grows so terrible — the thirst, the fear — so quickly that by 10 pages in, I could scarcely find the will to read.” That’s what Alan Cheuse, wrote in his book review for NPR. In other words, you know right away that what you will learn about the human condition won’t be pretty.
(The novel also opens with an important fact. Hector, the narrator, has been to university. He is an educated young man. The assumption that immigrants are ignorant or desperate is immediately dispelled.)
After the horrific opening, the novel is structured with alternating narratives between the present predicament, which becomes increasingly desperate as temperatures soar and water bottles are emptied, and the backstory into the distant or recent past. Vaillant doesn’t simply unravel the mystery of Hector’s past, however. He paints a comprehensive picture of simple life in the pueblos. He weaves in family values, granting honor to the maternal and grandfather figures and justifying a father’s flaws. He addresses the value of various spiritual belief systems, from Catholicism to animalism. And he brings big bad corporate America into the fray, educating the reader on how GMO corn is ruining an entire culture and economy. It is a story about ordinary people who wanted a better life. And it’s about the unforgiving world in which they live.
I listened to the audio version of the novel, fabulously performed by Ozzie Rodriguez and David H. Lawrence XVII, and there were moments when I wistfully longed for a simple pueblo life like the one that Valliant describes. I wanted to run away from this world, not just a world of coyotes and narcos but a world where poverty, abuse, and senseless killing is real. Where our younger population is becoming disenchanted with the notion that dreams can be achieved. And where drugs and other horrific distractions are readily available to our kids, right here in America–this beautifully prosperous place called el Norte to which others want to run in their attempt to find that elusive thing called happiness, this place that can also prove dangerous and deadly.
Vaillant’s book, while fascinating, is largely depressing. You don’t want to read it for an uplifting escape. And you may not come away with any greater understanding of why we humans are the way we are. The good news, however, is that Vaillant doesn’t forget those values we cling to amidst our world’s problems: love and hope. As in real life, they don’t make up a large percentage of the story in The Jaguar’s Children, but their threads run throughout — all the way to the very last page, so that you finish the novel with a powerful appreciation for whatever love and hope you can find in your real life.
A definite two thumbs up. Just beware.
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A nonfiction book about the US/Mexican border crossings, which I highly recommend, is The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea. And another book I loved by John Vaillant, this one nonfiction, was The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.