Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant, reviewed by Sally Wylie

The Jaguar’s Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Hard cover $18.77 (here) or $14.99 Kindle (here)

John Vaillant authored a work of non-fiction in 2005 titled, The Golden Spruce: a true story of myth, madness and greed.  It is a treasure of Native Canadian history, the logging industry and issues of who owns the land.  The forests of Haida Gwaii are matched by the story of Grant Hadwin, who felled the last and only living Golden Spruce.  The tree took two days to fall; it was 300 years old.

Vaillant brings the same dedicated attention to detail and riveting expose of controversial issues to his new work of fiction, The Jaguar’s Children.

Hector is a young man who grew up in a rural area outside the city of Oaxaca, the second poorest state in Mexico.  He is Zapotecan.  In Mexico, that means he is a second-class citizen, and more impoverished, exploited, and punished than others in the Mexican population.  To his advantage, he speaks some English, and his father believes he can escape to El Norte. 

We are thrown into the story with Hector and his friend Cesar who are inside an abandoned  water truck in the desert where the temperature rises to over 100 degrees during the day and freezes cold at night. The smugglers – the coyotes – have left them and 14 others to die when the truck broke down in a remote area of Texas.

John Vaillant
As the hours (and days) drag on, Hector tries, using the one cell phone left to them, calling the one name with an American code, AnniMac.  He begins telling his story to AnniMac by time frames during the day, and then, as days go by, the two bars of the cell phone dwindle to one bar. He no longer uses the phone for hope, but as a lantern to see briefly into to the misery of their existence.

He distracts himself by thinking of his mother, father and the life in the older days of Mexico. Here is where Vaillant is at his best describing in Spanish and English the language of the downtrodden, how the old days and the new betrayed the poor, the relevance of corn to the culture and their dedication to their ancient religion.  Vaillant tells Hector’s stories so convincingly; any reader must believe he lived there.

With each passing day Hector feels the slime growing thickly on the inside walls. The smells choke him, and the people trapped in the truck’s steel bowels cry and moan. He tells himself more stories, and we learn of Hector’s family and the link to their ancestor, the jaguar. 

In one story, two brothers see a jaguar approaching and think it will attack them.  They raise their weapons.  The jaguar says, “Is that any way to greet your grandfather?” That night the jaguar takes them into the hills and valleys to the mountain where he says, “This is my home.  I invite you to share it with me.”  “How can we repay you for this kindness?” they ask the jaguar.  He responds: “Remember who brought you here.” 

“Aha,” you say, convinced the ancestral story gives the book’s meaning, but wait.  Vaillant’s ironic voice asks us to put a “J” in front of the word agua – water – and an “r” after it.  Is he speaking about the illegals—the   Jaguar’s Children—inside the agua truck?  It is yet another layer of mystery which Vaillant creates while we bake with Hector in the dark heat of the jaguar’s belly daring to hope with only a capful of water a day.  

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Sally Wylie is co-authoring the fifth edition of a text titled Observing Young Children:  Transforming early learning through reflective practice with Nelson Publishing.  She is currently writing a story for middle grade readers, plus other works.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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