Those of us who live in the mountains are accustomed to confronting risk on a daily basis: extreme weather, avalanches, and coyotes in our backyards. However, we often forget that much of the planet defines risk differently. Risk may be making the decision to leave everything behind in search of a better life for you and your family. And what if those “coyotes” were actually human traffickers, guaranteeing you access to the Promised Land for an exorbitant fee? What is the risk you would be willing to take for a new life and freedom?
John Vaillant has always been known as one of Canada’s preeminent non-fiction authors so it’s no surprise that The Jaguar’s Children, his first foray into fiction, would come in with a roar. The Jaguar’s Children launches us precisely into this world of risk, struggle and survival. Two young Mexican friends, Hector and Cesar, put their trust in “coyotes” (the Mexican term for human smugglers) and agree to be sealed into an empty water tanker that will bring them across the border into the U.S. Along with many others, they turn over their life savings and are at the mercy of untrustworthy, morally repugnant humanity — those that will do anything for a buck. They risk it all. So it’s no shock when the circumstances go sideways and the story turns in to one of grief and tragedy.
Vaillant is a masterful storyteller, lyrical in his ability to capture humanity’s deepest, darkest fears and primal instincts. While the two friends are brilliantly captured living in the horror of their present situation, Vaillant joyously intertwines happy memories and Zapotec folklore in contrast. We learn about the significance of jaguars, the supernatural, the spiritual and the storytelling richness of Mexico. We learn how critical these traditions are for providing hope to rural downtrodden peoples trying to cope with the transition to modernity. Not only are the lives of the immigrants in the water tanker at stake, but a whole cultural history and lifestyle also hang in the balance.
The story takes on a secret tack as well: the very sustenance that feeds rural Mexican communities – the ability to grow corn – is at risk and everything relies on the clear passage of Hector and Cesar into the U.S. Vaillant goes beyond simple metaphor to explain the seriousness of this fate. The book speaks to many primary issues of our generation such as loss of tradition, multi-national-style food production versus small farming communities, and the ever-growing movement towards information and fact overruling myth and the supernatural. Vaillant’s tale is visceral and timely but ultimately horrific and devastating. The Jaguar’s Children is gripping and poignant and impossible to put down as you become prey to this powerful story.