Maximum Shelf: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 5, 2014.


jaguar
The Jaguar’s Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 – 08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance–I am Hector –Cesar’s friend–It’s 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 sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers–now prisoners–have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector’s discovery of Cesar’s hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn’t know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar’s. The Jaguar’s Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar’s friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants’ suffering is a large part of the novel’s significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector’s life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant’s masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant’s writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector’s voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector’s is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen–does happen–is part of its import.

The Jaguar’s Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar’s survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector’s account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay.


Rating: 9 capfuls.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vaillant.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

John Vaillant, nonfiction author, makes his fiction debut with a shockingly beautiful and painful novel called The Jaguar’s Children.

jaguar

At the border town of Altar in the Mexican state of Sonora, a taking-off point for many immigrants who buy the services of coyotes to cross into Arizona…

There are stalls there with things to buy, but there is nothing for the house or the milpa, nothing nice to eat or to wear. Besides expensive water, it is mostly clothes and almost all of them are black or gray – T-shirts, jackets, balaclavas and gloves, even the bags – so you can be invisible in the desert, in the dark, because that is what a migrante needs to be to make it in el Norte.

Stay tuned for a Maximum Shelf to come. I am excited to share this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wawahte by Robert P. Wells

Wells tells a haunting tale of three Canadian Indians and abuse during their forced schooling in government institutions.

wawahte

In Wawahte, Robert P. Wells sets out to tell the story of Canada’s First Nation children who were taken from their homes and their parents by the Canadian government and installed in Indian residential schools. For more than one hundred years, from 1883 to 1996, generations of children were subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, racism, and denigration in these institutions, and were punished for speaking their native languages or practicing their beliefs. As told to Wells by three Indian residential school survivors, these haunting narratives are a familiar but gripping story of Western imperial dominance. While the writing is unpolished, the accounts are nonetheless harrowing and important.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on August 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews. 8-29-2014 10-30-23 AM

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (audio)

runawayFrom the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I read pre-blog, and loved), another historical novel of women’s lives. I recently tried reading Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, but I found I couldn’t appreciate it. No such problem with The Last Runaway.

Honor Bright is a small-town British Quaker in 1850, a young woman recently abandoned by her fiance, her future uncertain. Her sister Grace will soon be departing for the New World to marry; Honor decides, somewhat impetuously, to accompany her and find a different life. She can always come back home, right? But the sea voyage – heralded as the shortest and easiest passage possible – nearly kills her, she is so seasick. When she finally sets foot in America, she knows that, no, she can never go home.

On the overland trip to Ohio (by coach – their plan to take riverboats being prevented by Honor’s seasickness), where Grace’s fiance awaits, Grace falls sick and dies. Honor will arrive alone, and ahead of the letter announcing her coming, so that the fiance, Adam, expects one sister but finds another. His brother has likewise died, leaving him now with a widowed sister-in-law as well as this almost-sister-in-law. Honor’s place is decidedly uncertain, and uncomfortable. The new Ohio Quaker community of Faithwell does not look approvingly upon Adam’s strange household. The pressure is on, therefore, for Honor to find herself a husband; but she is without even a friend in her new hometown.

She does have a friend a day trip away, however, in Wellington: Belle Mills, of Mills Millinery, who nursed Honor through an illness and sheltered her, and gave her work. Honor is a gifted seamstress and quilter, and her skills were appreciated in Belle’s shop. Quakers can’t wear colorful or decorative hats, but Honor enjoyed making them for others; and Honor got along with Belle, although the non-Quaker’s coarse speech and whiskey drinking were new to Honor. (Honor’s sewing and quilting are a strong framing element throughout the story: quilts in the English and the new American styles are described, and provide examples of Honor’s homesickness, and her new community’s intolerance of her English traditions. I thought of my mother, the quilter, who I think would appreciate these details.) Also simultaneously fascinating and disturbing is Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave-hunter; and this is where the conflict of the novel begins.

As a Quaker and as a moral being, Honor is naturally repelled by slavery; but it is easier to abhor the peculiar institution from England, where it is distant and (forgive the phrase) black-and-white. In Ohio, Honor sees black people for almost the first time, and encounters runaway slaves who she is naturally inclined to help; she also sees Donovan working to re-enslave them. When she does marry local dairy farmer Jack Haymaker, Honor finds not a soulmate or even companion; but she does find a nasty mother-in-law and sister-in-law. When they discover that Honor has been offering minor assistance to runaways – food, water, directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, in Oberlin – they forbid her to help further.

The issue, then, is between obedience to her new (if unlikeable) family, versus her feelings about slavery. Honor will grow as she has to form new relationships, and not always easy ones: alliances with a black woman in Oberlin named Mrs. Reed, and with the colorful Belle Mills; and she has to find a way to relate to her new husband and in-laws that will work for each of them.

I noticed I was approaching the end of this audiobook and things felt so up in the air I couldn’t believe they’d be wrapped up in time. And indeed, the reader would appreciate a sequel to find out what finally becomes of Honor’s new family; but they are sent on their way in good time, with no loose ends, at least. Honor’s character sees a satisfactory arc: she grows, expands, speaks up for herself, considers different positions and stakes her own. And her new life is indeed established in the end.

I thought the Underground Railroad was ably portrayed, if only simplistically; the runaway slaves have some personality, and Belle Mills is a great hit. The quilting element, as I said, was an added appeal as well. But it’s Honor herself who stars, rightfully. I think Tracy Chevalier still has it here, and would recommend this novel. It’s somewhat lightweight in the issues it addresses, perhaps, but it makes its points, and is more accessible than novels on this subject sometimes are, so it will appeal to the popular reader.

The audio performance by Kate Reading (great name, that!) is fine as well. I liked the different accents she used; they provided real color and personality. I would happily recommend this format.


Rating: 7 tin cups.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Sue Monk Kidd

Following yesterday’s review of The Invention of Wings, then, here’s the gracious Sue Monk Kidd!


Sue Monk Kidd: Inhabiting the Past

Sue Monk Kidd was born and raised in Georgia and now lives in Southwest Florida with her husband, Sandy, and their black lab, Lily. Since her first publication in 1988, she has written fiction, nonfiction and memoir; The Invention of Wings is her first work of historical fiction. Kidd’s bestselling books include The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair and, as co-author with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates. Kidd is very active on Twitter.

photo: Roland Scarpa

photo: Roland Scarpa


How much research did you do on the real Grimké sisters?

Well, I began reading about the Grimké sisters and I could hardly stop. I was inspired to write the novel because I discovered them at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party exhibit in New York, and I came home very excited and began to read about their lives. And that went on for months. I suppose I did full-time research for about six months before I began writing, and then I wrote for three and a half years, during which I was still doing a lot of research. I would sit in front of the computer, inventing and writing, and suddenly I would have to get up and figure out what kind of mourning dress widows wore in 1819. Or what were the emancipation laws in South Carolina at that time. It was constant, ongoing research. And it wasn’t just reading books; I made trips to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the New York Historical Society–and of course a lot of places in Charleston. That was a primary site for me, and a lot of organizations were helpful.

Did you enjoy that research?

I loved it so much that I had to make myself stop and start writing. I think a writer can get lost in her research if she’s not careful! There’s a point where you just have to put it aside and begin writing. I was very concerned that I get that era right. I wanted it to be as authentic as I could make it, rich with details, and I wanted the reader to be plunged into a real world. So I needed to gather a lot of information, and I really had fun doing it.

How important is historical accuracy in fiction, and how faithfully does this novel stick to the historical record?

That is such a large question for any author of historical fiction. In this case, I was not only writing about a time and place that existed, but I decided to populate the book with real historical figures. As this was my first book of historical fiction, it was a learning curve for me. I started off so enamored with Sarah Grimké’s history, just in reverence for her life and her history and that of her sister, too, that it was very hard to deviate from that historical script. It took me a long time to come to a place where I understood that there was Sarah Grimké, the historical figure, and then there was Sarah Grimké, my character. And I’m not a biographer, and I’m not a historian; I’m a novelist. I had to come home to that again, because I was so caught by her history. I would say that I wrote the truth of Sarah’s life as much as I possibly could, and I think that anyone who reads the novel will find her life rendered there pretty closely. But my goal, I realized, was to serve the story itself, and that meant that I had to deviate some. It meant that I had to invent; it meant that I had to find Sarah in my own imagination as well as in history, and that was really crucial. The moment that I was able to let go and do that, she became alive for me in this book.

How did you make the decision to write this story in two voices?

When I began I was inspired to write the story of Sarah Grimké, and that was as far as I got. I knew I wanted to write her story in first person, because I love the intimacy of that first-person voice. I feel like I can inhabit her and her mind and her heart, and I love seeing the world through her eyes. I love the closeness of that and what it allows me to do, to get into her inner life. But as I began reading about the history, it became very quickly apparent to me that I could not just tell her story without telling the story of an enslaved character. It seemed that in order for this whole time and place to be fully fleshed out, I needed to enter the lives of two characters. So as I was reading about Sarah’s childhood I discovered she had been given what she called a waiting maid, when she was somewhere around 11 years old. This waiting maid was named Hetty, and Sarah taught Hetty to read, and then Hetty died soon after that, as a young person. That’s everything I knew about her life. But the moment I read about her I knew that this was the character, and that I could have this close relationship between them that’s also a complicated, difficult relationship, and I could talk about both worlds. Now, it was daunting to me to do this, to be honest, because writing first person from the standpoint of an enslaved female character is pretty far flung for me. So that was sort of my literary sky dive, I guess! But it was apparent to me that that’s what I needed to do, to tell both stories.

Sarah left plenty of detail to history, including many writings in her own voice, while Hetty barely existed at all on the record. Was it freeing to write Hetty, in comparison?

It was absolutely freeing. Maybe the biggest surprise in writing this novel for me was that Hetty’s voice was more accessible, that it came to me more easily. This I did not expect. I thought it might be the opposite, actually. I think it was because Sarah came with this big historical script, and we knew basically nothing about Hetty. So I had this broad imaginary canvas to fill in. It freed me, I think, just to be able to explore and to just let her talk–and she would talk! I mean she would just talk, talk, talk to me.

Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, is a rich personality who keeps her secrets. Does she have a historical counterpart? Where did you find her?

There was a little seed of something that kind of helped me to create her character. When I was reading the slave narratives I came upon one sort of secondhand story: one woman was speaking about her time in slavery, and referred to someone named Sukie, who was apparently a very defiant, unusual woman. She told a story about how Sukie resisted her master’s advances and pushed him into–I think it was a hot pot of lye soap or something like that–and he was burned, and for that she was sold. And she remained very defiant to the very end. Something about that ignited this idea in me, and I wanted to be sure that Charlotte was someone who could protest and resist and who was concerned about her own self-possession, who had this spirit of insurrection and even subversion. I think it’s important to offer images of enslaved women who are not just victims. We’ve had far too much of that, I think. I wanted to show women who were not just victims, certainly not in their minds. They were in a struggle to be human, self-possessed, to fight back and to show this kind of defiance and resistance. In that regard, the slave narratives were evocative for me of the kind of character that I tried to bring to Charlotte.

Do you have a favorite character? Or one with whom you especially identify?

Oh, it’s always hard for an author to say which character is her favorite! It’s like picking between your children! As a writer, I feel like you have to love all your characters, even the so-called misbehaving ones. But having said that, it’s true, your heart gravitates to your characters in special ways. I remember reading something Alice Walker said that I referenced recently. She spoke about writing about her mother in literature, and she said, my mother was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature? And I just loved that line! I thought, that’s how I feel about Handful. She’s just all over my heart. And every day that I wrote, I had this very special feeling about her. I love Handful’s great hope, and the way she used irony and wit to deal with things.

Sarah’s big struggle, at least in my novel, was to find her voice. I literally gave her a speech impediment, which the historical records say she did not have, but I have this idea that writing a novel is really about taking a bad situation and making it worse! Sarah had difficulty speaking in public, but she didn’t have an impediment, so I sort of enhanced it and made it a little worse. That’s one example of how I deviated from the record to serve the story. Her journey was to find her inner voice and to be able to articulate her truth in the world, and I identify with that–I think many people identify with that.

What have you read and loved lately?

Well, I just made this long transatlantic flight, and I hauled books on board instead of my iPad! I don’t know what that says about me. I read three Edith Wharton novels that I had not read before, and I hate to admit that I hadn’t read these; but I guess we all have classics that we’ve not read and we’re ashamed to admit we’ve not read until we finally do! Those were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence, and I thought–what took me so long? And then I read Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., which I just loved. The other book I read recently was Dear Life by Alice Munro. All wonderful books. There are so many and so little time! That’s what’s so great about a nine-hour flight, you know.


This interview originally ran on December 18, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on December 18, 2013.


invention of wings
The Invention of Wings opens in 1803, on Sarah Grimké’s 11th birthday. To mark the occasion, her mother gives her an unwanted birthday gift: the awkwardly beribboned 10-year-old Hetty Grimké–Sarah’s very own slave. Sarah is repulsed and tries to free Hetty that very night with a document she draws up herself, but it isn’t that easy for the child of one of Charleston, S.C.’s first families. The two girls grow into womanhood bound together but separated by the chasm of their very different circumstances.

Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and co-author of Traveling with Pomegranates, chooses to tell this story in first person and to alternate between the voices of Hetty and Sarah–one of many masterful choices that make The Invention of Wings a remarkable read. The name “Hetty” was given by her owners; Hetty is called Handful by her mother, Charlotte, to whom she is devoted. One of the novel’s richest characters, Charlotte tells her daughter only parts of her own past: stories of Handful’s father, who never saw his daughter’s face, and of Charlotte’s own mother, who was brought to Charleston and slavery from Africa when she was a small girl. Charlotte teaches Handful to sew, to make very fine clothes and quilts. This artistry earns them both a relatively privileged place in the household and, importantly, provides a means of recording stories among slaves, for whom literacy was illegal. Charlotte sews her daughter a story quilt, appliqueing squares that tell of her life’s greatest events. This rich storytelling tradition is described in Handful’s passionate voice, which both contrasts with and matches Sarah’s, also passionate, as she experiences limitations of a different sort. An intelligent child encouraged by a father and brother to read books, she harbors dreams of becoming a barrister, which are inevitably dashed against Charleston’s expectations of a young lady. Her inclination to teach slave children to read is likewise reviled, although she succeeds in secret with Handful. Over the years, the two girls share confidences across a wary divide, but guilt and resentment present obstacles to their friendship.

When the girls are still very young, Charlotte extracts a promise from Sarah: that she will free Handful one day. This promise haunts Sarah, who will eventually journey north to escape her stifling family and the peculiar institution she despises. She meets a Quaker man, whose own peculiar religion at first repels her but comes to fascinate and draw her in; this new alliance shapes Sarah’s more independent adult life, and distances her from Handful, who necessarily remains in Charleston. Along with her indubitable younger sister, Nina, Sarah will finally become a renowned (and infamous) activist for abolition and women’s rights. Overcoming a speech impediment that is a literal portrayal of her difficulty articulating her desires, she will slowly, painfully create the independent existence she has always craved. Handful’s fate will, of course, be rather different.

The Invention of Wings is a novel based on fact: the Grimké sisters were real-life abolitionists, and are joined in the historical record by a number of other characters in this novel, including Denmark Vesey, a free black man executed for planning a slave uprising; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker activist for women’s rights and abolition; and Sarah Mapps Douglass, a free black activist and educator. Hetty Grimké, however, left tantalizingly scarce facts: she was given as a gift to Sarah, but disappears shortly thereafter from the historical record. And Charlotte is entirely Kidd’s creation, an intriguing and complex character who tempts the worst of slavery’s brutalities in her search for something better for herself and her family.

Sue Monk Kidd portrays the parallel lives of her two protagonists in sensitive and touching sketches. Readers of her earlier work will recognize strong, sympathetic characters and deft use of nuance. The heart-wrenching nature of Sarah and Handful’s stories lies in the complexity of their relationship: they tend toward friendship, but Sarah’s guilt and Handful’s natural resentment–as when Sarah claims to know how she feels–may prove too wide a gap to bridge. And slave traditions such as the story quilt add a layer of detail informed by Kidd’s extensive research, as well as an emotional depth for Handful and Charlotte.

The Invention of Wings ambitiously tackles a swath of issues, including feminism, abolition, religion, activism and relationships between races and genders. This subject matter might be heavy under another hand, but the historical record of Sarah Grimké’s remarkable life and Kidd’s strengths in narrative and in rendering relationships make for a story that is both thought-provoking and engrossing. Strong female characters, solid roots in history, and the compelling lives of two women the reader deeply cares about make The Invention of Wings a thoughtful, moving tale that ends on a hopeful note.


Rating: 7 squares.

The Invention of Wings was just chosen as Oprah’s new Book Club 2.0 pick. Kidd commented: “I’m thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection. After researching and writing The Invention of Wings for the past four years, I can’t tell you how exciting it is to launch the novel with Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.”

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Sue!

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