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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
John Vaillant is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Outside, and Men's Journal, among others. Of particular interest to Vaillant are stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world. His work in this and other fields has taken him to five continents and five oceans.
His first book, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed (Norton, 2005), was a bestseller and won several awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction (Canada).
In the weeks leading up to the Texas Book Festival, we’ll be reviewing some new and forthcoming books by featured authors, of special interest to Texas readers.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
978-0-544-29008-2, ebook, 280 pgs., $12.99 (also available in hardcover, Audible, and audio CD)
Thu Apr 5— 08: 31 [text]
hello i am sorry to bother you but i need your assistance— i am hector— cesars friend— its an emergency now for cesar— are you in el norte? i think we are also— arizona near nogales or sonoita— since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming— we need water and a doctor— and a torch for cutting metal
The Jaguar’s Children is journalist and author (who cites as sources Luis Alberto Urrea and Charles Bowden; how could you go wrong?) John Vaillant’s devastatingly powerful first novel. Mexicans and Nicaraguans, men, women, and children, bakers, students and scientists, have paid coyotes (“They were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes”) to provide safe passage into the United States, welded inside a water truck (“like a bucket of crabs with the lid on and no place to go”). As the book begins, they’ve been abandoned for two days in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona (“la via dolorosa”).
Héctor (“Pollo is chicken cooked on a plate— a dinner for coyotes. This is who is speaking to you now.”) finds a contact, AnniMac, with a United States area code in his friend César’s phone and tries to reach her. In an attempt to comfort himself and save his sanity, Héctor takes us with him as he “escapes into his head,” making audio files as he talks to AnniMac about his home. Héctor talks about his family, Mexican history and geography, religion and mythology, culture and sociology, as he describes the diversity of Mexico, not a monolith, and these people as individuals, not stereotypes.
The Jaguar’s Children is full of rich description. A market in Oaxaca: “It is not even four, but already the first trucks are coming in from the coast with fish and oranges, seashells and coconuts, maybe a special order of turtle eggs hiding in the belly of a tuna, or a crocodile skull with all its teeth. And from the south they come with coffee and mangoes, chocolate, iguanas and velvet huipils, and from the Sierra with calla lilies, beef, pots in all sizes still scarred by the fire that made them.”
Vaillant’s imagery is both profound in its simplicity and brutal in its sophistication. “More and more the tank is feeling and smelling like the intestine of some animal, slowly digesting us.” Héctor watches time in the form of the cell phone’s battery life and thinks of his beloved grandfather. “Time, you know. Minutes. When my abuelo was young he didn’t know what a minute was because in Zapotec there aren’t any minutes, only days and seasons and harvests.”
There is even humor in the midst of tragedy.
When she [Héctor’s mother] was tired of listening to me, she said, “Héctorcito? How long have there been these Transformers?
And I said, “Always, Mamá. Since I was young.”
And she said, “Yes, well, that is not so long. Our beloved Jesus has been a Transformer for two thousand years.”
The Jaguar’s Children is harrowing and beautiful, brilliant and exhausting. The concept is inspired, the plot simple and stark and terrible, the pacing inexorable. The ending is wholly unexpected in the great tradition of magical realism. This is the total package.
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