Tragedy Writ Small and Large

The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 288 pages, release date January 27, 2015

John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children is an essential, remarkable read. This is a novel about migration, cultural loss (and retention), and the impact of big agriculture and its use of genetic engineering.

The narrator has traveled from Oaxaca to the U.S. border. He and another dozen or so hopeful immigrants have paid to be welded into an empty water truck to travel across the border. The remaining opening in the tank is a hole small enough to pump out the water (if there were any), but much too small for a person to pass through. Who would expect a tanker without access to be carrying a human cargo?

Disaster hits when the truck breaks down just north of the border. The two coyotes driving it abandon their human cargo—but only after demanding additional money, which they claim will be used to pay a mechanic. There is no mechanic; there is no exit. During the desert days the walls of the tank become too hot to touch; during the nights temperatures plummet.

If this sounds like a bleak situation, it is—bleak and all too real. The last few years have seen death rates for migrants ranging from 477 in 2012 to 307 in 2014 (according to AP reports).

The immigrants’ phones have little reception and are losing power. The narrator, Tito, is unable to telephone out and records his life story in a series of audio and text messages he is unable to send. Tito describes the miserable conditions in the tanker. He shares many of the stories his grandfather told—of the old ways in Oaxaca and his work on a series of archaeological digs in the years before World War II.  He also tells a tale of the impending crisis facing small farmers in Oaxaca as genetically modified corn strains contaminate the local crops.

Vaillant succeeds in weaving these different narratives together to create a novel that is both disturbing and beautiful. He avoids polemic; he avoids discontinuity; and, remarkably, he avoids bathos. This is a book that compels readers both because of and despite the sense of menace hanging over it. The Jaguar’s Children deserves to be widely read both for its success as a novel and for the issues it raises.

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