John Vaillant Finds His Spirit Animal With “The Jaguar’s Children”

In an effort to become more regular and frequent, I’ve decided to expand the scope of this blog to other areas including book reviews, television shows and perhaps even theatre. Today is a case in point. I recently received an advance copy of “The Jaguar’s Children” the first novel by predominantly non-fiction writer John Vaillant. As I have been wanting to do more book reviews, I thought that this would be a great place to try it out:

Many non-fiction writers take the bold step and enter the fiction world. Few have done it with such experience, prowess and sincerity as John Vaillant. Fresh off two award-winning journalistic efforts The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, Vaillant challenges himself centering a fiction piece around a Mexican refugee with stories about ancient Meso-American tribes and mythical animal Gods. While it may feel like an impossible task for some, Vaillant seems to be the perfect man for the job as both of his earlier efforts dealt with aboriginal issues, social history and environment, and to a lesser extent, animals.

The Jaguar’s Children is told through the eyes of Hector, a Mexican from the southwestern state of Oaxaca, who is left for dead in the desert by the coyotes he had paid to smuggle him and his friend Cesar across the U.S-Mexico border. Trying to communicate with an anonymous American known only as ‘AnniMac’, Hector tells us the story of his journey, while delving into the history and culture of Mexico and his family’s Zapotec roots.

Writing as a non-English speaking character is always a risk; on almost every page there are words – sometimes entire sentences – in Mexican Spanish. Vaillant succeeds on two fronts. First, his knowledge and journalistic background. This novel is not that far removed from the topics of his non-fiction books and he is an excellent researcher. The second however, is his personal experience. In 2009, his wife moved the entire family down to Oaxaca for year. Located in Southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca has a large indigenous population – primarily Zapotecs and Mixtecs – with sixteen officially recognized tribes in all.

And yet, The Jaguar’s Children is more than a story of a refugee searching for a better life. It is the story of ancient ways of the Zapotec, The Olmec and other mestizos. It is the tale of a political struggle amidst corruption and deceit. It is a powerful saga of labour, corn and the economy and the poor working conditions that are still rampant throughout the Mexican workforce and agribusiness. But above all, it is a story of love and respect. How one man’s journey leads to his (and ours) deep understanding and connection with life, culture and family. His love for his best amigo, whose life he is trying to save when they are both short on time. It is the story of the Jaguar Man, and sometimes how animals and spirits can serve you best when God doesn’t answer your prayers. (If you believe in that sort of thing: a much more spiritual kind of worship that predates any form of organized religion). It is a story of the Human condition.

The Jaguar’s Children will be published on January 10, 2015 by Penguin Random House (Knopf Canada)


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