Last week, as our plane tried to descend through Penticton’s winter fog, we could hear loud banging noises outside on the fuselage. The flight attendant told us not to worry – it was just ice chunks breaking away from the plane. Two Mexican workers sitting across the aisle clearly couldn’t understand what was being said, and peered nervously into the dark.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable stuck inside that metal drum either – mostly because I was a little spooked by the book I was reading.
In John Vaillant’s new novel, The Jaguar’s Children, two Mexican migrants, Hector and Cesar, pay to be hidden inside the metal tank of a water truck, and smuggled across the border. On the three-hour ride across the desert, they sit in the dark and hope they will make it. Suddenly the truck makes a clunking sound, and lurches to a stop. The smugglers abandon Hector, Cesar and the other desperate migrants welded inside the tank. With no way to escape, they have no option but to wait and hope someone will find them.
If, on my plane ride, neuroscientists had me wired up to demonstrate how reading novels increases empathy, I would have blown their readings right off the chart. It’s in fashion at the moment to think of novels as empathy builders, and I suspect that’s the very reason Vaillant, who is better known for his nonfiction books The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, turned to fiction to tell his latest story.
Fiction can move people in a different way that non-fiction. What is it really like to cross the border, to risk jail time, deportation, or worse, to die in the desert? Always interested in history and research, Vaillant ties each of the trapped migrants to current troubles in Mexico – dealing with drug lords, the destruction of small farms, and the introduction of genetically-modified corn.
Although Vaillant’s story is fiction, it’s based on truth. There’s a humanitarian disaster unfolding just to the south of us. Hector and Cesar come from the poor state of Oaxaca, a place I visited as a tourist. A place I now realize I didn’t understand in the least. I feel guilty about being able to fly back and forth to Mexico just to get a little sun on my face. But I also feel guilty for imagining or even pretending to understand the back story of the Mexicans sitting across the aisle from me.
Whatever your connection to Mexico, this book will make you think. It isn’t a perfect telling, nor does it capture all the complexities of the US border crisis. Mostly, it’s a personal story that will haunt you.
If reading this book piques your interest, I’d also recommend listening to the CBC’s documentary Gone with a Trace: The story of lost items on the U.S./Mexico Border, which aired on The Current Feb. 10, and is available as a podcast.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton.